By Lindsay M. Anderson, as told to Gina DeAngelo
We often say that teachers tend to think within the four walls of the classroom. So it was eye opening to convene with a group of educators from across the country as part of 100kin10’s Foundational Math Brain Trust, and have the chance to explore the similarities and deficits in mathematics education and contribute to Doing the Math: Building a foundation of joyful and authentic math learning for all students.
Going into this work, we had to accept non-closure, because we knew we weren’t going to come up with all the answers. We knew that things were going to feel a little uncomfortable, because these aspects of the field can be hard to talk about. And a lot of us were frustrated by the fact that we've seen very little movement of the needle on student achievement—for years.
There were people in the group that have been in education for decades, and they’ve seen very little movement. So their insight as to who to go to, who to target, and how we're going to get the biggest bang for our buck while also being sustainable, was interesting. But it was hard for us to not think, hmm, how farfetched is that? Can we do that? Who do we need on our side? Do we need a political rally, at this point? That was ultimately where we were ending.
There are huge deficits in student achievement, and we have to acknowledge that no matter what state teachers live in, there is standardized testing. But that doesn't mean that math can't be fun. And it’s getting to the point, year after year after year, where these deficits are piling up and we're falling further and further behind. Some states are way ahead, and it's clear as to why. They are really putting in the time and effort to train their teachers, work with them, problem solve with them, and take them through meaningful learning experiences.
One of the catalysts we focused on was teacher preparation. There is a huge gap between how K-12 educators teach in the classroom and how they themselves are being taught in college. What their professors are doing, their coursework, the pedagogy, it's very didactic, very militaristic and industrial. And that doesn't necessarily align to how our students are now learning.
We also looked at field experiences for preservice teachers. How are they being structured? Are they long enough to allow them to really, truly reflect, or are they just observing? What kind of learning environments are they able to immerse themselves in? Are they engaging in a sufficient number of high-quality field experiences? Again, there are some universities and programs nationwide that are doing a great job with this, but many people aren’t aware of them. And that's what we’re trying to do with this report, spread the word about the places that are doing it right, connect educators to the research.
Another aspect we explored was elementary math specialization. There were university folks there, deans and professors alike, who said that they offer mathematics specialization certificate courses, but people don't take advantage of them. So our natural question was why? Why wouldn't you want to be a content expert in mathematics, to then go back into the classroom and be in that leadership role?
Fundamentally, this work is about fostering elementary school environments in which teachers feel empowered and supported to make the changes necessary for joyful and authentic learning. In the professional learning space, this is typically the point where teachers say, I don't have the support to do that, I don't have the capacity to do that, or, my kids are crazy, I'm not ever going to be able to go through that kind of lesson with them, I can barely get them to stay still. These mindsets and perspectives are not going to advance teaching and learning.
So the question becomes, how are we making changes in the classroom to best fit the needs of students while also being supportive of educators? It was sad, that a common theme that came out was that a lot of teachers feel oppressed. By their students, by administrators, by the environments that they work in. A lot of us in that room either are teachers, were teachers, work with teachers, work within the school, work with preservice teachers. And over and over again, it came out that teachers feel oppressed. That they have so many responsibilities and restraints, along with such high expectations of achievement for their kids.
We grapple with this in the professional learning sphere. Teachers have all these barriers against them, they have all these obstacles. Time is normally the biggest one. But then, a lot of times teachers are feeling like they’re being pigeonholed into what they teach based on the curriculum. And that’s normally what their professional development is based on, curriculum and instructional materials. And that doesn’t necessarily allow for joyful and authentic math learning. So we really want to shift and push the boundaries of what that should look like, and how we're helping administrators and teachers to understand how to deliver that and foster that in the classroom.
I was so happy that one of our other big focuses was on the perceptions of mathematics. It’s not some exclusive club! It’s not either you belong or you don't. But that's often how people feel. There are these certain characteristics that people associate with doing math— you look like this, you sound like this, you think a certain way. You check all these boxes, so you belong. So you have folks who think, oh, I don’t look that way, I don't talk like that, I don't think about things that way. I’m not a math person. It shouldn't be like that, but it is. So how do we break down those barriers? How do we change this widespread belief about who can do math and who can't? There are copious amounts of research about it, but what is anybody doing about it?
We're fed up— we’re done. We want to do something about it.
This document, Doing the Math, it's just going to be a document, unless we do something about it. Unless other people decide to learn from it. I haven't quite figured out how I want to do it yet, but I don't want it to sit and collect dust, or become someone's bookmark on their browser. How can we use this work to shift the dynamic of mathematics for students?
Because it needs to happen. On a huge scale.
Lindsay M. Anderson is a Professional Learning Specialist at ASSET STEM Education.