Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, Dr. Marcia Burrell joins us to discuss how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields. Marcia is the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego.
- National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM)
- Budapest Semesters in Math Education
- Polya, G. (1973). How to solve it: A new aspect of mathematical method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- The Polya Approach Used at the University of Idaho
- Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.
- Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
- Miller, L. & Spiegel, A. (Hosts). (2015, January 23).Invisibilia: How to become Batman pt. 1 [Radio broadcast episode].
- National Research Council, & Mathematics Learning Study Committee. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press.
- Brandsford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
- Larson, M. (2016). The Need to Make Homework Comprehensible. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
- Stinson, D.W (2004). Mathematics as gate-keeper: Three theoretical perspectives that aim toward empowering all children with a Key to the Gate, The Mathematics Educator14 (1), 8–18.
- Burrell, Marcia (2016) Gatekeeping in Mathematics TEDx talk at OCC. January 29, 2016.
John: Teachers at all levels often play an important role in influencing the educational and career paths of our students. In this episode, we examine how math teachers play a critical role as gatekeepers who may either welcome students to or provide a barrier to student success in all STEM fields.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Marcia Burrell, the Chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Department at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Marcia.
Marcia: Thank you.
Rebecca: Welcome. Today our teas are…
Marcia: Earl Grey with caffeine.
Rebecca: Extra caffeine. [LAUGHTER]
John: Mine is just a pure peppermint tea today.
Rebecca: And I have a jasmine green tea.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done on math instructors as gatekeepers. What does it mean to be a gatekeeper?
Marcia: Well, I like to use the word gatekeeping because sometimes gatekeeping has to do with an open gate, where you can just slide right through, or someone gives you the key, or they’ve given you the secret password, or it’s a barrier, where if you don’t really know what the hidden curriculum is about passing through the gate then you could stay there and be turned away. And in mathematics a lot of times people are afraid of math or they’ve been socialized to think they cannot do math and it’s really a gate that’s been created either by themselves through socialization or it’s been created by a math person or by someone like a parent who said, “oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t good at math either.” So, when I think about gatekeeping and mathematics it’s really about barriers that are created by us or barriers that are created by others, or for people who are really successful in mathematics, they have an opportunity to open the gate; there are certain things that they can do that will make people pass through the gate more easily.
Rebecca: I think our students can empathize with the idea of gatekeeping when it comes to mathematics—you hear them talking about these stories of certain situations where the barriers have been in place for them, or sometimes that’s faculty. For example, I’ve heard many times in creative fields where the creative faculty might say, “yeah, we know you’re not great at math but you have to take math,” or I had a situation when I was a kid in middle school—I remember distinctly middle school teachers saying “the women in this class aren’t going to do as well” and then I remember the few of us banding together and then we got really good grades on this final exam that we were told that we wouldn’t do well in. I think that those narratives are certainly there and it’s interesting to think about it not only from the person coming to the gate but also from the gatekeeper perspective, which leads me to the question of, what are some things that gatekeepers do that keep people out?
Marcia: I’m gonna focus on math people mostly, where sometimes they say things like maybe in a beginning level math course, “Why didn’t you know that? You should’ve learned that before. I don’t understand why you can’t do fractions.” So, there’s vocabulary built into a lot of us where we send out messages which get people to realize, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me; I should know how to do this.” So, they start imposing those same messages on themselves. The other thing that I think is important is in mathematics there’s always been a stratification about who can do math or who should do math and who can be successful in math. Often, as you just said, women have stories about fighting to get into a advanced math class because they didn’t do very well on some class but they were willing to work hard. So, certain populations are harmed because they’re socialized that way that when women have trouble in mathematics we say, “Oh, we should make it easier; you should do a group of courses that are not gonna lead you to calculus in high school,” but sometimes when men struggle we go, “Oh, struggles perfectly fine.” In the U.S., teachers make it easier for students to learn; they give them answers, they work out all the details. When I say give answers, I mean they work out all of the problems so that it’s really just rote, as opposed to in other countries, struggle is actually honored—hard work and struggle is part of the mathematics learning process, where in the U.S. sometimes we don’t allow people to struggle. If you got a B in Algebra I, well, you don’t really need to take Algebra II because the minimum requirement in New York state is Algebra I, and the fact is struggle is a part of the learning process. Historically, we’ve always stratified who is successful in math or who can take math and the level of courses that people can take. Plato 2,300 years ago believed that everybody needed arithmetic, but the advanced math was relegated to philosopher guardians, and in the 1920s the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argued to have mathematics part of the curriculum, and between 1890 and the 1940s there was a growth in public schools and the perception was that sometimes they weren’t sure that students had the intellectual capability of doing some of the mathematics that NCTM thought was important. But remember in the 1950s the business world and industry said, “What are you guys doing in schools? The people that you’re putting out there can’t do mathematics.” Well, that was mathematics for a purpose and then Sputnik happened and all of a sudden math became this subject that we wanted to make sure people had. But think about how many English classes do people take—one or two in high school, but in high school students often take four or five math courses. I’m not saying they’re not important, but it really forces us to think about mathematics as an elite subject when gatekeeping from my perspective is it’s not about an elite subject, it’s everyone can do math; people are born mathematical and everyone should have an opportunity to do the subject and not fail at it, but struggle and make movements towards whatever learning they need to do.
John: So a lot of this sounds like our society is creating or emphasizing or encouraging the development of fixed mindsets in math where many messages coming through (as you both have mentioned) in early childhood discourage people from thinking that they’re able to do math and only the elite can get through. Is that common in other cultures?
Marcia: I mentioned earlier that in other cultures hard work and struggle are honored and I witnessed in Budapest, when I was visiting there as part of my sabbatical, that students were asked to go up to the board and struggle through a problem, even if they had no idea. And we do a lot less of that because either you know the answer or you don’t; that doesn’t really work that way—it is an iterative process. I used to work on problems and maybe get a little frustrated, put it away and the next day I’d look at it and I go, “Oh, now I get it.” It’s really about process. The NCTM standards talk about process and product, and if you want people to learn mathematics then you really have to emphasize process, working in teams, giving people a chance to try things and fail but also collaborate with others to ensure that maybe there are multiple ways of approaching a problem, but if you’re not allowing students to talk with one another and work it through, then sometimes they think there’s only one way to do it and it really doesn’t improve their mathematical abilities. Mathematicians are about process—there are certain skills that mathematicians use. Good mathematicians persevere through problem-solving. They check their answers using different methods, they plan how to solve a problem versus jumping into a solution, and they justify the answers and communicate with others. Good mathematicians don’t just know the answer; it’s a process, and there’s even collaboration between mathematicians, but when we teach it on the K-12 level, we say, “This is what you need to learn and you need to learn it in a specified amount of time,” and so a lot of times students are turned off by the way we teach mathematics. Opening the gate is really about helping teachers rethink how they actually teach mathematics. We have a lot of data about how to successfully teach math, and it’s about problem-solving, reasoning, communication, connections and representations, but if you’re just gonna stand at the board and write the answer to a problem, that doesn’t help people really connect to how you came to that problem. So, gatekeeping is about getting teachers to rethink how they’re teaching mathematics and what they think is important. Process and products are important, but process is actually more important.
Rebecca: You mentioned mathematics as a collaborative process, but in my experience in K-12 I don’t think I ever worked with another person once.
Marcia: It’s funny you mention that. Again, the stratification stuff is huge. I attended a program called Budapest Semesters in Math Education and it’s geared for Americans, Canadians to come to this program. They’re interested in both juniors and seniors to come and learn about the problem-solving approach to mathematics. These are students who are mostly math majors, but they could be math ed majors, and they are sent to these schools where they’ve selected the top students in mathematics to use a problem-solving approach and what happens is they give them a problem with no background and they ask them to work out these problems. They can use their textbooks, they can use calculators, but the fact is our students—Americans and Canadians—get to witness students almost trying anything to work out these high-level mathematics problems—sometimes they’re theoretical, sometimes they’re applied. But what the students say who are in this particular program—and I got to be in these classes with them—was, “Why can’t we have all students use some of these processes?” And the processes are really just the things we already know that good mathematicians are supposed to do, sort of George Pólya, you know: analyze the problem, look at all the facts, try something, test your answer. But you actually get to witness that. So, when you asked me “None of the classes I ever went to that were collaborative and problem-based and working in teams,” well we seem to have an idea that only the gifted and talented or special programs will allow kids who already show aptitude to do mathematics in that particular way, and the fact is I visited a school in Budapest where this teacher who’s been working with the gifted and talented students got permission from the parents to try this problem-solving approach for a ninth grade through 12th grade. They had to get sign-offs by parents, because of course, in our system, if kids don’t know certain things by the end of certain grades then their opportunities—another gate—for getting into the university and going through the career path are cut off. So, these parents had to sign off that they were going to risk that what she was gonna to do over the next four years was gonna be helpful to their students and that they wouldn’t be harmed by doing this problem-solving approach. I witnessed several math classes where this teacher had been working as part of her dissertation to have students go through this problem-solving approach—it’s not just Pólya; there are other… Pósa there’s a Pósa method—I met this gentleman who, he was in his 80s and he invented the Pósa method and he’s one of the top mathematicians in his age… in his day, but he devoted his life to teaching problem-solving to kindergarten through grade 12. But the point that I’m making is, I witness students who had been through this process, and they were explaining problems to their peers on the board in ways that I haven’t seen good math teachers explain. But they built these kids up from start to finish to be confident about what they knew, to work in groups, not be afraid to make mistakes, and I think that we can do more of allowing students to learn not just at their own pace, but learn what mathematicians do—the process of engaging with one another if we weren’t so afraid of the whole accountability—what do kids know at the end of 12th grade? What do they know at the end of 11th grade? It’s recursive. Some things they learned in ninth grade in Algebra I will come back in Algebra II and when they’re college students they’re gonna pull the algebra and geometry together, if we allow it, as opposed to looking at these areas as completely separate things. One of the things about gatekeeping is that teachers have to think about students as already being competent; they’ve got to provide students with scaffolding so that students that are in different places have an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. I also think that we have to have high expectations, but we have to let students understand that they can extend the learning if they take some risks; that’s what good mathematicians do, and then we have to exhibit in depth knowledge as well as subject matter knowledge. So there are certain things that gatekeepers—math teachers—can do, but they’ve got to trust that students can learn, and we’ve got to keep the expectations high, but also scaffold for them so that they’re successful.
Rebecca: …a lot of evidence-based practices.
John: Yes, I was just going to say a lot of what you’re talking about, there’s a tremendous amount of research supporting that, not just in math instruction but across the board. In terms of providing students with challenging problems—you have the desirable difficulties of Bjork and Bjork, for example, and in terms of learning from mistakes, that shows up in all of the research on teaching and learning and it’s something that Ken Bain talked about when he summarized some of this research in What the Best College Teachers Do, and it’s also shown up in several of the books we’ve used in our reading groups, Make It Stick and Minds Online, for example: that retrieval practice, low stakes testing, where students can make mistakes and learn from mistakes, is effective in all types of instruction. So, these are really good practices that seem to be mostly neglected in math instruction.
Rebecca: I was expecting John to also mention something about growth mindset. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think I already did a while back, but treating math as something you’re either good at or not good at by teachers and by families and by our culture discourages the development of a growth mindset, and that’s really important. This year I’ve completely flipped my large microeconomics class and one of the things I had them do is before each class I asked them to do some readings and then I asked them to work through some problems in the readings; I have students submit a short Google form, where I ask them just two questions before each class. The first question is: “What have they learned from this reading assignment before that day’s class?” And also, “What are they still struggling with or what don’t they fully understand?” And half to two-thirds of them before each and every class list, “I have trouble interpreting graphs;” “I have trouble understanding graphs;” or that “I have trouble computing these things,” and that’s all basic math, and of course they have trouble doing it when it’s the first time they see it, but they see it as a barrier— “I’m just not good at it,” and every day in class I’ve been trying to encourage them to say, “Well, you may not do it now, but you can get better at this;” “You haven’t yet mastered this;” “You’re not yet good at this, but the more you do it the easier it gets,” and we’re not always seeing that happen, and we see that in lots of areas.
Marcia: Yeah, I think that students are more willing to say “I’m not good at math; I don’t have any experience with math,” but they would never say, “I can’t read; I’m not good at reading.” They might say it, but it’s socially acceptable to say “I’m not good at mathematics,” and the fact is when you look at a group of kindergarteners and they’re in a classroom, they’re all learning for the first time how to add and subtract and they slowly… I’m sorry, through some of their elementary school teachers who often are afraid of mathematics, and they say little things, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s okay to not be able to do that, we’ll work on that later on,” but they say it in a way that sometimes gives students permission to say, “Oh, I don’t have to learn that—I’m a girl, I’m a student of color, I don’t have to learn that because the teacher said she doesn’t know it either,” and so one of the concerns that I have for how we train childhood educators is we force them through, at least on our campus, these two math classes where they go kicking and screaming, but the fact is we almost need to reprogram them to think about the things that they can do mathematically and then build curriculum around them. It’s not always about the fact that the way you learn is the same way that all the kids that you’re teaching learn; it’s more about how do you change your perceptions about mathematics. There’s something on NPR, and I’ll have to find the reference a little bit later on, where this young man who was blind learned how to ride a bike, was sent to school, and people couldn’t even really understand why he was able to do all of these things as a blind person—well, his mother decided to treat him like he was a sighted person and it’s a Batman series, where the fact is, if you convince someone that they can do something and you believe it, then all of the things that you do to work on their perceptions about their capacity will come through. But first the teacher has to believe it and then they have to do all of these things to scaffold it. The fact is that, and again, I’ll have to find the researcher, but he did this study where he told all of his researchers that these mice were smart mice… these mice were everyday the same mice… what happened is the researchers came in and they treated those mice like they were smart—they handled them differently, they had them run through whatever people do in psychology with mice, and then he came back later on and said “All of these mice have exactly the same capabilities.” Well, that works in exactly the same way in the math classroom; students come, and if we believe that they’re capable and we come off and treat them with respect about what they have learned and how to build on that, then we’re gonna see better progress in their learning. I have to come back to the gate because the teacher has a lot of power to make the gate accessible or make the gate a barrier, and the barrier is really just the messages that the teacher says to the students and to herself about success in mathematics, and we lose entire generations of people when the gate is closed to them mainly because of perception.
Rebecca: So much discussion of gates it should be important to note that in front of Marcia is this picture of so many different kinds of gates in our conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the gates that you have in front of you?
Marcia: Yeah, I decided to Google different kinds of gates and when you think about the Brandenburg Gate or you think about gates like this one —remind me what this is called; this is in Cincinnati—the arch; this is really a gate, but this shows an opening to something, so when you think about gatekeeping in mathematics, I want us to think about people being gatekeepers for accessibility. So when you look at those pictures you think of when you’re going through the turnstile to pay with an EZ Pass. That is a barrier. If you don’t have money, you don’t have an EZ Pass, you’re not getting through, but if you look at the door to no return like in Benin it’s an opening to the next world just like certain pictures of gates just have you think differently about openings and closings.
Rebecca: There’s some like the dog pen where there is no way in or out; it looks like that one’s just closed forever.
Marcia: Yeah, which one is it? This one or this one? Right, I mean this has a gate, but often people are closed inside of thinking that they can’t do math and they can’t be successful. The job of a teacher would be to help them jump over that particular gate or find a different way to think about opening that particular gate. If you’re a dog and you’re inside of a pen, I think you’re just gonna need somebody to lift you up over that gate, and I think about that with teachers that what they have to do with each individual student is completely different, but their responsibility is to help them understand that they’re all mathematicians and they all have capacity for success in mathematics.
Rebecca: You’ve talked a little bit about how gatekeepers can open the gate or provide the leg up over the wall, or whatever it is, right, that’s there. Can you talk a little bit more about how to be inclusive and how faculty and teachers can really support this environment that would allow for problem-solving and allowing students to fail and try again and to iterate and eventually succeed?
Marcia: I’ve thought a lot about elementary school students and middle school students, where you’ve probably heard about the Montessori Method. The Montessori Method, you work with individuals to build from what their interests are and it turns out that students without a lot of direct instruction can complete whatever the curriculum is for that grade level by mapping to their interests, their strengths, and projects that they do where they’re learning the mathematics in ways that might be considered non-traditional. In the Montessori Method, they’re not just looking at memorizing times tables; they’re looking at multiplication as repeated addition, they’re looking at visualizations instead of just looking at a text. And the fact is that sometimes, I think, that if we allowed students to individualize their learning, especially in middle school and high school, that there’d be more progress than forcing students through the curriculum where each week they’re expected to learn something but they’re not learning it, they’re sort of just being dragged through the mud. And I have a lot of respect for my peers who are math teachers. I was a math teacher where I felt like I know what that kid needs, I need to take time to help that kid through what they need, but I didn’t have the courage to stop what I was doing and figure out how to individualize or make them work in small groups. I was a successful K-12 teacher, but I feel like I started to figure out what was needed when I made the decision to leave. So, part of my job as a math educator is to help our candidates who are gonna be teachers in schools to have the courage to do what they know is right: think about their love of mathematics and give kids problems that are theoretical and have them try it; give them applied problems, give them things where they have to use visualizations and not just know the procedures, but also understand the concept.
John: And also perhaps to use peer instruction, as you talked about, where students explaining things to each other reinforces learning for each student.
Marcia: Yeah, and sometimes the things that we expect of what we call the gifted and talented are exactly the things that other students can do but we’re afraid to take a risk, and I met earlier this afternoon with one of our adjuncts that’s teaching math methods to our graduate students and she said her job is to teach her candidates how to be good teachers, and sometimes that means forgoing what they think they wanted accomplished on that day and building something fun that’s gonna get students to see that math has many openings, not just following things through rote or through memorization. So, I had a really nice conversation with her because she does work in the school systems, but she’s teaching a course for us and she uses constructivist approaches. I have many peers that are still engaged in this math war that it has to be rote, it has to be step-by-step. In the constructivist approach, you care more about the process that students engage in and there’s a program that I listen to on Sunday morning it’s on NPR where it’s a puzzle and the puzzle is usually related to a vocabulary puzzle as opposed to a math puzzle, but the type of thinking that you have to engage to solve those puzzles really is mathematical thinking, so I love those puzzles, but they’re all couched in word puzzles… but it’s really mathematical thinking… and so I think the teachers need to use more of those word puzzles to bring people in so that they understand that they’re engaged in mathematical thinking—it’s just not called mathematical thinking. One of the other things that I wanted to mention before I run out of time is we are heavily tracking students into particular tracks. Sometimes you’re in the track where you’re just going to do Algebra I, and sometimes you’re in the track where you’re gonna get to do Algebra I and Algebra II, and maybe you’ll get to do Geometry, but some of the best learning occurs when there’s heterogeneous grouping and there’s less tracking. This gate stuff, these gatekeeping, really reinforces tracking, which when students come to SUNY Oswego and they’re in a remedial class and don’t know why they’re in the remedial class, because they may have been tracked in a particular way and cut off many, many job opportunities or majors because they were tracked in a particular way, and that is gatekeeping that occurs in fourth grade. And again our responsibility for our childhood educators is to get kids to think more broadly about what mathematics is; it’s not just arithmetic, it’s not just geometry, it’s not just theoretical problems; there are many types of problems that childhood people could engage students in that wouldn’t shut the door to possibilities 10 or 12 years later when students find out that they were tracked in a way that makes it so that they could never do graphic design or they could never do engineering or something else that they didn’t really understand was possible because somebody closed the gate early on.
John: …and that’s really important because most of the growth in income inequality is due to differences in educational attainment and the returns to education. And the returns to education in the STEM fields is far above the returns in other areas as well. So, keeping people out of those areas means that the people with those areas end up doing really well, but the people without those skills end up in jobs that are perhaps overcrowded with lower job prospects, lower prospects of growth and it helps reduce social mobility and economic mobility. It’s a serious problem in our society; it’s the worst we’ve ever seen it in the U.S.
Marcia: Yeah, I can’t connect it completely to perceptions, but a long time ago I taught a remedial math course at Clinton Community College and I had a student in that class and she was a smart person—I think everyone is smart—but I walked through how to study math, how to approach it: you are capable, work hard, keep asking questions, and about 10 years later I got a postcard from her—this flabbergasted me; she was in a remedial class and she had entered a PhD program in mathematics and she said it was just about the fact that somebody finally showed her how to study math—it was read the textbook, try the problems, come to class, listen maybe to the lecture, don’t be afraid to make mistakes; when you’re tired take a break. There are certain things We know that people can be successful in mathematics but we keep thinking that it’s this magic wand thing; it’s not a magic wand thing. We actually know —there’s research from Adding it Up —where we know exactly how people learn math well. The stuff research from Bransford, which how to study mathematics, how to learn mathematics, it’s written in black and white from large-scale studies, but then we return to the rote memorization, follow these steps and that’s not the beauty of mathematics at all.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about what you’re saying is that societally we might think, “Oh, fourth grade teacher… not really gonna have a big impact,” but you’re really talking about this fourth grade teacher is not a gatekeeper of the little gate around the garden; this is like the gate to the universe.
Marcia: Absolutely, and most of our math candidates who are not math concentrates—they’ve got to take these two four-credit math courses—will say, “I just need to get through this class; I hate math.” If you hate math it comes through loud and clear in your teaching; it’s really difficult to mask that. I taught a math for diverse learners course that the School of Education and Arts and Sciences Math Department and Curriculum and Instruction collaborated on and it was a math for diverse learner, so some of the things that I’ve been talking about here was in a full graduate course, and students would say, “Well, I never really thought about that; I thought everybody was gonna learn math the same way I learned math”—you’re a math person, I shouldn’t even say that. You’re a math person—you came through the system and you were successful in the current system, but if you want to build the next generation you’ve got to think about some of these other factors—you’re gonna be in a system, and as we’ve talked about systems, you are part of the system and you do have power to make changes to it, even if it’s perceptions, even if it’s just giving students the perception that you care about their learning and that they can succeed, and so this is really important to me. There are three principles: teachers must engage student misconceptions, understanding requires factual knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a metacognitive approach enables students self-monitoring. If I think about gatekeeping, if teachers kept those three principles in mind, they’re not mine—it’s in the research. This is sort of revolutionary because we don’t want to restrict people to thinking that only certain people can do mathematics, but if math teachers, whether they’re childhood or adolescence, or university teachers think about what good mathematicians do, they’ll follow these three principles and it might move us forward. I know it’s a big deal because the successful people want to keep what they have to themselves, but I think we miss out on the potential of entire generations if we don’t give them access to opening the gate through mathematics. When the Common Core came out teachers had the perception that they had to give these problems to students and parents would call and complain—“I can’t even do these problems; these aren’t the problems that I did when I was a kid”—well, the fact is we weren’t supposed to be sending these problems home; we were supposed to be doing those problems in class, and so a lot of the Common Core mathematics was supposed to be using manipulatives and getting kids to talk about how they think through the arithmetic problem. They were sending home problems and parents were complaining they were spending two or three hours to work through these problems, and there was an article put out—it was an NCTM—where they said what is your problem? No, don’t send these problems home for kids to fight with their parents, ‘cause that’s just gonna reinforce, “Oh, I couldn’t do math either;” it was supposed to be completely done in the classroom in collaborative groups, but we’re still not interested in teaching in that way. So, we sent home the homework—well, you could have been sending home memorize these timetables just as we did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, so finally NCTM put something out to help math teachers in the K-12 area not to send home these problems that would take parents two to three hours, but to rethink the organization of their classrooms where students could work on problems and have fun with mathematics, and the fact is that there are reforms that mathematicians fight about; there are a whole host of mathematicians that said Common Core was bad; Common Core is not bad, the way it was implemented was bad, so now we’ve done some backtracking to think about the fact that when you carry, when you’re subtracting or you’re adding, why do we do that? And the Common Core got students to make sense out of place value and make sense out of what it means when we carry this is about the tens place or the hundreds place and whenever you have new curriculum, Common Core or what was the curriculum in the ‘50s, I can’t remember… the new math… there’s always new math, it’s just an approach to make it more inclusive, but sometimes the way we roll things out makes it difficult, at least for the next generation of teachers, so I’m pro-reform movements, but we have to take the time and the energy to implement it in a way that’s actually gonna be useful—we just keep going back to the way we taught math a hundred years ago.
Rebecca: It sounds like what happened was faculty who knew how to do things a particular way get handed something that’s different but not a way of demonstrating or doing the different, right, like…
John: …without the professional development needed to allow them to implement it effectively.
Marcia: Correct. That’s correct.
Rebecca: The method doesn’t match the material.
Marcia: Exactly. At the same time they were putting out that students have to take a main assessment in fourth grade and eighth grade, but those assessments didn’t really align to this new Common Core curriculum, and so lots of things have changed over the last, I’d say seven to ten years, and we’re sort of coming out of that. When students come to the university level we still expect them to know mathematics. Do you remember twenty-five years ago they changed the math curriculum to be Math A and B, Course I, II, and III? New York state was the only state that was really thinking more globally about, “Wow, it doesn’t always have to be about algebra—it could be about statistics, it can be about more applied,” but the fact is universities didn’t change and we were still expecting students to know this narrow curriculum but it did broaden what people thought about mathematics, but it didn’t really help a lot of those students because then they were closed out of particular career areas because they might have been in a school that embraced applied math or embraced business math or something that might not connect to what they would do at the university level.
John: You’ve also been involved with Project Smart here at Oswego. Could you you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to math instruction.
Marcia: Project Smart was a thirty-year project where teachers came to SUNY Oswego for summers to do professional development, math, science, technology. There are some teachers retiring over the last couple of years that came to Project Smart right from the beginning. We brought people in like Damian Schofield in the early days to learn about human-computer interaction. We brought people in from music and from art to help teachers integrate other things into their teaching, so they used to come for three weeks, then they came for two weeks, then they came for one week, then we built it into the department where faculty got released time to go into schools and work with teachers from the bottom up to think about how to improve teaching in their classroom. Project Smart really honored the work that teachers did because we would say, “What do you want to improve in your classroom? Are there particular things that you know students are struggling with?” This past year, funding for Project Smart ended, but the institution is still supporting individual faculty to go into schools and work with teachers to build classrooms that connect with the learners that they have in front of them. It’s more connected to what’s called a professional development school, where at the university we have the latest about how to teach, whether it’s math or English or social studies or modern language, and then we go into schools where they’re dealing with kids every single day and we try to help them figure out how to improve as a teacher; we meet them where they are; we build from there, so Project Smart is over—I’m not gonna say it’s dead, but we have a different system to work on professional development schools but just in a different way.
John: So you’re still doing the same thing even though it’s not under that official title?
Marcia: Correct. Correct.
Rebecca: We always wrap up our episodes by asking, what next?
Marcia: Oh my goodness, thank you for asking what next. After returning from my sabbatical, where I had the opportunity to be part of Budapest Semesters in Math Education where I got to see classrooms where students were using Pólya’s problem-solving approach in addition to something called the Pósa method, I worked with Josh McKeown, who’s from international education to reduce the cost of the Budapest program, so we’re working to recruit math students, both childhood and adolescence teacher candidates, as well as straight math candidates to consider going to Budapest over a winter course for one or two weeks over winter session or during spring break. What would they experience if they went to a short course? They would visit classrooms using the Pósa method, they would sit in on some of the math courses at BSME, where teachers are actually showing how to use a problem-solving approach in mathematics, where sometimes our students say “You talk about problem solving, you talk about the constructive approach, but no one is doing it so we don’t really know what it is.” The next step is to work with international ed to get a group of students to do the BSME program.
Rebecca: That’s really incredible.
Marcia: I’m excited about it too and I hope to also re-institute my math for diverse learners course because through that course I reinforce that I believe students should have access to high-quality, engaging math instruction. I believe all students should have mathematically rich curriculum. I believe all students should have high expectations and strong support, and we’re all gatekeepers— we are change agents and we control the gate. I think it’s ambitious because many people don’t agree with me saying that mathematics needs to be more inclusive, but that’s what I’ve been working for my entire career and I hope to continue that way.
Rebecca: Your work is incredible and we’re really excited that you’re doing that work.
Marcia: Thank you.
Rebecca: I know as someone who’s in a field that you don’t always associate with math—I believe in math and so I hope we can all help support your initiative.
John: It’s a major social justice issue.
Marcia: It’s a huge social justice issue because, again, what happens is often students of color, students that come from poor families may or may not have had the best math instruction. I mean, it’s a big cycle, and when they come here we should be able to help not just convince them, but this is a public institution. We should be able to provide access for them to reach whatever goals they hope to. We should be able to take students where they are and help them achieve whatever their focus is, whether it’s math related or not.
John: Well, thank you.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.