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The Truth About Math Curriculum

question markA few years ago, two of the school districts I work with adopted new mathematics curricula–they each chose the one the other was abandoning. Golly, they could have saved a lot of money by simply boxing up all the teacher and student editions and swapping!

When student performance falls short of expectations, most educators seem to go hunting for new tools such as the ideal curriculum, the ideal personalized intervention program, the ideal iPad app, and so on.

But take a look at my post from last week, The Right Kind of Lazy for Math. What depth of math knowledge do teachers need to guide students in the deep number sense required for this kind of mathematical agility? 

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The Right Kind of Lazy for Math

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Is math a chore or a fun puzzle?

What if students approached math problem sets as if they were fascinating puzzles rather than boring worksheets? And did great work while being lazy? Sound crazy? It’s not–and there’s a neuroscience connection!

Quick–multiply 19 x 24. Are you reaching for paper and pencil? Or a calculator? That’s what students (and adults) trained in algorithms do. My colleague, Dr. Dario Nardi, has gathered EEG images of dozens of college students solving such problems. Those trained in algorithms use just a couple areas in their brains for calculations. The good news is that they solve these problems quickly and accurately. The bad news? They don’t access the part of the brain used for skillful working of unusual problems.

Instead of reaching for paper or calculator, did you say to yourself, Well, I can make this easier and do it in my head…20 x 24 – 24. If so, you used more parts of your brain, connected with understanding the steps in a process, rotating images, and viewing things holistically. And, if you learned to use  strategies such as “friendly numbers” in collaborative groups, you also activated the speaking and listening areas of your brain. You did less work and fired more areas of the brain, creating new synapses for later, even more complex mathematical thinking!

This is the right kind of “lazy” for math.

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Are You Nurturing Creativity?

split apple rockLast month’s edition of Educational Leadership was all about creativity. The article that struck me the most described how Einstein cited his secondary school training in using his senses during observations, practicing visualization, and exploring the construction of devices as a patent examiner fueled his abilities as a scientist. He also directly attributed his breakthrough on the theory of relativity to his ability to think musically, nurtured by his study of violin since the age of six.

What’s the so what? These are all skills. Einstein is talking about physical and mental skills and habits of mind. He didn’t cite memorizing theorems or formulas, but skills he mastered through purposeful practice. Take a look at the schools around you. Are students getting a chance to develop in nonbook-learning ways that scientists and other problem-solvers need? Ask yourself 

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Were You Ever a Child???

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast time, I posted about the Platinum Rule for leaders:
“Treat others in the way they would like to be treated”

I’d like to suggest a twist on it for those whose decisions affect children in our public schools:
“Would you want your own child in a classroom following these policies? How would you have fared as a student?”

For one thing, this simple data item–our own values around a policy–would halt debates on topics such as “Do students benefit from recess?” “Should a first-grader be asked to sit still for a three-hour test?” I think we could answer these with the question, “Were you ever a child?”

But more important, we need to have students as excited on their first day of their senior year as they are on their first day of kindergarten.Why? Because their learning has only just begun. To really make it in today’s world, no matter what they learned in school, they will have to keep learning their entire lives. Cultivating a love of learning is as, if not more, crucial as any content matter.

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What Does “Whole Child” Mean to You?

“The only thing that kept me motivated in high school was singing in the choir.” That statement came from a very successful student who landed a scholarship at a top engineering university. Not the AP classes, not being on the championship math team, not competing for valedictorian. No, motivation came from having a chance to perform, to express himself, to use parts of the brain separate from logic and reasoning. In essence, it was the class that gave him a chance to stretch outside of academics.

If top students need the arts to stay motivated, what about those who struggle with math or reading? In all too many schools these “extras” are being cut in the push to get students “on track” with core skills. However, where is the research and common sense that says that a narrow focus will produce better mathematicians and readers? As one 11-year-old who was struggling told me, “With an extra hour of math and one of reading, I don’t get to do anything fun. Not even Spanish.”

Here’s the THREE reasons to push back on such a narrowing of the courses students take in school:

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