Math Task Force - December 16, 2015

Big day for the Math Task Force today! We are about half way through the timeframe of the Math Task Force and this was a good time to ask our critical external advisors to join us so they could hear about what we have been doing, what we are planning to do, and provide us feedback.

We are very fortunate to have had two Faculty of Education professors from the University of Windsor who have been working with us since the beginning, Dr. Dragana Martinovic and Dr. Shijing Xu, as well as the Associate Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Dr. Doug McDougall. They have been full committee members, participating and providing advice since the beginning.

On December 16 we also invited three other scholars to join us. We provided our materials in advance and we were extremely fortunate that they each gave a presentation for us to learn from.

Dr. Cathy Bruce: An experienced math teacher who is Trent University’s Dean of Education and head of the Math Education Research Collaborative. Dr. Bruce spoke about her research into math education. She began by stating that teachers are crucial pieces of the puzzle and that she believes any strategy worth its mettle has to involve the teachers. She applauded the Math Task Force for involving teachers on the committee itself as well as plans to collect feedback from a wider group of teachers through our focus groups and questionnaires. In her presentation, she discussed published research that highlights the importance of math education including: math is shown to be a better predictor of later language skills than early reading skills, and, math is shown to be the best predictor of educational outcomes, even more so than language. The importance of math is indisputable. She also described her own research with young students comparing free play, guided play, and directional instructional techniques. She has consistently found that the results of direct instruction are for the most part no different from free play, and that guided play is the best method.

Dr. Hyman Bass: A distinguished mathematician from the University of Michigan. Dr. Bass discussed a fascinating visit to Japanese schools in which he had the opportunity to observe mathematics teaching. During the lessons, one teacher would put equations up on the chalkboard using different colours: one colour for the teacher’s input, a different colour for student input, still other colours for different parts of the question (e.g., numbers, notations, etc). There were also paper bags with different labels on the front that were stuck to the chalkboard that students could reach into to build onto the equation. The teacher would then add to the equation according to whatever was on the paper chosen from the bag. There were right answers given and there were wrong answers given in the class, of course. All answers were noted and nothing was erased. All students had the opportunity to comment on right and wrong answers and it was a natural part of the lesson with no shame in having given a wrong answer. Students learned about common calculation errors, errors in order of operations, and so on. This format allowed the entire class to talk about and learn from different kinds of errors and how they happened. These students clearly had a voice in the classroom and they thrived on the discussion.

Furthermore, he was not the only one there observing. He described the peer observation used in Japan in which teachers have an opportunity to observe another teacher’s lesson. This gives them an opportunity to receive feedback from peers and to learn and ask questions from each other in a friendly, collegial way. There were many teachers observing that day and this is a common occurrence that they said is very helpful.

He left us with a quote from one teacher, Hosomizu, Yashuhiro:

“I believe that the most effective way to nurture the ability to reason and express themselves is to make students like mathematics. In order to do so, we must develop lessons in which students can notice and taste the beauty and usefulness of mathematics as well as the joy of thinking. In this lesson, I want students to realize the amusement of changing subtractions… I propose a method in which students can develop their ability to calculate autonomously and with enjoyment instead of calculation drills.” Wow!

I don’t think Dr. Bass used the term, but to me, everything that he was describing about the Japanese classrooms reflected a “Responsive Learning Environment” – exactly what the Learning Environment Subcommittee presented at the last meeting. Of course, a responsive learning environment can take many forms and this is a great example.

Mr. Bruce Rodrigues: The CEO of EQAO. Mr. Rodrigues has extensive experience teaching and researching mathematics, and he has travelled the province studying math. He spoke passionately about the importance of math education. He noted that many students are struggling in math, and not just on our board. Mr. Rodrigues applauded our efforts to make a difference and described how important it is to close the gaps for kids who do not meet the provincial standard (level 3 or 4) on the mathematics EQAO in grade 3 and/or grade 6. He went on to make the startling point that with regard to access to post-secondary education, it is better for a student to achieve a lower grade in academic math in secondary school than a higher grade in applied math. We know that kids who do not meet the standard on the grade 6 EQAO are more likely to go into applied math and this limits their options after high school.

He also discussed how research using the EQAO tests has shown repeatedly that students’ attitudes about math and math outcomes are correlated. It is important to have a positive predisposition about math and so changing the culture about math is very important: “It’s not just us as educators, it’s society that needs to address it. It’s not okay to say I just don’t do math.” This was exactly what we discussed on December 11.

The feedback.

Over the rest of the meeting, the Math Task Force subcommittees each presented our work and plans going forward and we received feedback from our three critical advisors. They were all impressed with the work we are doing, the scope of the project, what we have been able to accomplish in a relatively short time, and our approach. They even said that they learned a lot from their visit with us. They recommended that we consider how we can disseminate our work broadly because many boards across the province could potentially benefit. They also recommended that we make sure we consider important differences in different grade levels. Math is generally accessible to parents up to about grade 3. After that, many parents can struggle with the math content themselves so we cannot rely on the work that is done at home. We also need to consider the home environment. There are inequities related to socio-economic status and sometimes homework is not the priority. Class work is therefore extremely important, but we do need to engage parents as much as possible. In addition, the sooner we can close the gap the better. We know who the kids are. We need to work with them. Also, consider the interaction between literacy and math. Recognize that often for students the problem is not the math but understanding the word problem. We need to be clear on where the issue lies for individual students. Finally, they cautioned patience and that while we may be able to tackle some low-hanging fruit, the cultural aspects and student attitudes will take time to change.

Our work will continue through the spring of 2016 and we will present our final recommendations to the board in April. The team is pumped for our January 22 meeting which will involve class visits in the morning and the meeting portion in the afternoon. I welcome your questions and comments as the process unfolds!

Jessica 

 

 

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Jessica Sartori