I admit that I'm part of the problem. I'm lousy at math. Like many Americans, I can calculate basic equations (though it probably takes me longer than most) and do so accurately. But if I tried to solve problems that kids are given in school today, I would surely pull my hair out before getting any where close to a correct answer.
It's possible the reason American students are so far behind in math on a global scale, is because our school systems frequently change the methods, and then change them again. Worse yet, the methods or standards can change without enough investment in teaching the teacher to teach the new methods. That's according to a rather comprehensive, recent article from the New York Times; Why Do Americans Stink at Math? by Elizabeth Green.
It's a lengthy article, but worth the read for it's insights, which I'll share, in part, here.
Author Elizabeth Green uncovers the problems with American Mathematics pedagogy by following the teaching career of Akihiko Takahashi from Tokoyo. As a University student, he met the man who would be his mentor, Takeshi Matsuyama, as he worked in the University affiliated elementary school. His classroom was a sort of laboratory where they studied new teaching ideas. Together, they sought to revolutionize how students learn math by making radical changes in how teachers taught the subject. This included encouraging students to uncover the procedures, properties and proofs for themselves, by having passionate discussions about possible ways to find the answers, rather than focusing on rote memorization.
Hmm. That sounds much like the strategy behind today's Common Core initiatives, but we're not quite there yet.
As Takahashi investigated ways to reform math learning, he found that methods that most intrigued him, came from reformers in the United States. Throughout the next twelve years, Japanese education employed the vibrant, American approach to math. Takahashi also learned about the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, an American organization and followed their efforts. When he was finally able to move to the U.S. to teach teach math, he was excited to work with other teachers as passionate about these ways of teaching learning as himself. Imagine his surprise to discover none of those methods were being used in American schools.
As it happened, Americans had developed a new, effective way to teach math, and then failed to implement it. It wasn't the first time, nor the last. It happened in the 1960s with "new math" and then I heard about new math again in the late 80s and early 90s. Now Common Core standards are further refined and more ambitious, although there are limited, to no systems in place to educate teachers to teach them.
This all emphasizes the recurring notion that traditional methods of teaching math don't work. Yet I learned them.
Today educators indicate innumeracy is the problem, similar to illiteracy in the language world - children simply aren't learning the math facts upon which all arithmetic problems are based. Studies point to student's inability to read an accurately drawn thermometer, or that students are confused by which is greater, 1/3 or 1/4. The default mistake assumes that the higher value denominator connotes greater worth. (It is this revelation that proves to me, I'm better at math than I ever believed!)
In summary, there are wonderful, innovative ways to teach math more effectively. But teachers can only teach effectively when they are given the tools and resources, and through instruction on how to employ those methods.
The article, which I encourage any parent or teacher to read, briefly mentions the Japanese practice of Lesson Study, which has been practiced on a small scale in the United States. ICOSA sponsor, the Colorado Business Roundtable sponsored a Lesson Study here in the Denver Public Schools. It entailed a group of teachers jointly observing one another's lessons in the classroom, critiquing the lesson and observing how the students learned from it. The teachers involved, reported a great deal of insight on their own lessons based on their team teacher's reactions, as well as learning more from other teacher's experiences. As a whole, educators who participate in lesson study, wholeheartedly recommend it's practice, even in acknowledging the extra work and time investment involved. If you'd like to learn more about Lesson Study, there are materials here, and videos of CObrt parent project here: