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September 19, 2013

New Teaching Method Improves Math Skills

Posted by Simon Willerton

My attention was grabbed by the following press release from the University of Florida: New Teaching Method Improves Math Skills, Closes Gender Gap in Young Students.

It begins with an overview.

When early elementary math teachers ask students to explain their problem-solving strategies and then tailor instruction to address specific gaps in their understanding, students learn significantly more than those taught using a more traditional approach. This was the conclusion of a yearlong study of nearly 5,000 kindergarten and first-grade students conducted by researchers at Florida State University.

I was rather surprised that trying to figure out what a student does and does not understand counts as a new teaching method.

[The researchers] drew upon research demonstrating that the learning of mathematics is facilitated when teachers gain deeper insights into what their students already know and are able to do as well as what students do not know and are unable to do. Teachers gather these insights through careful observation and by engaging students in discussions of their mathematical thinking.

The question that jumps out here is “If this is a revolutionary insight then what is the more traditional approach to teaching maths?” Well, apparently it’s that

teachers typically rely heavily on a math textbook to guide the planning of day-to-day instruction and often provide students feedback only on whether their answers are correct.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised by this as, thinking closer to home, this ‘traditional approach’ can also be found at higher levels and I often encounter a perception that maths is just about getting the right answer.

The system that has been developed is called the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS) and details are available on the MFAS website. I can only wish good luck to the people involved in this.

Posted at September 19, 2013 12:48 PM UTC

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Re: New Teaching Method Improves Math Skills

The problem being tackled may be that the many of the school teachers have, themselves, the idea that maths is just about getting the `right’ answer and their own perception of mathematics is very stunted. They do not understand mathematics and, moreover, do not have an idea as to what it means to understand mathematics. (I think that there are several subjects other that maths for which the same is true.)

The real shame is that this is thought of as being a new teaching method!

Posted by: Tim Porter on September 20, 2013 7:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Teaching Method Improves Math Skills

There are two points that I think are important for putting this into perspective. The first (basically what Tim said) is that the teachers here are not subject specialists — they have university degrees in Education, possibly with a specialization in Early Childhood Education, but with no particular mathematical background at all. Many of them will have taken the minimum amount of mathematics necessary to earn high school and university degrees. So without appropriate supplementary materials and guidance, they may not be well equipped to tailor the instruction to address the gaps in students’ understanding.

The second point is that “new” may only refer to the fact that this method is new to these teachers and these students in this specific context, not that it’s never been used anywhere before. The link to the press release isn’t working for me right now so I can’t see what additional context is given, if any, but a crucial phrase there is “press release”, after all.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 20, 2013 9:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Teaching Method Improves Math Skills

Having now had the chance to read the press release, I note that the word “new” appears only in the headline. In the text itself there’s hardly a hint that this teaching approach is revolutionary, simply that it’s atypical and seems to work better than what is typical.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 20, 2013 1:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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