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Math Wars – Common Ground?

October 25, 2015

Full disclosure, I was very involved in the revision of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) Common Curriculum Framework for K-9 and 10-12. I believe strongly in the goals of the WNCP and advocated for the inclusion of what is commonly known as “math processes” in the curriculum. I also think these are very similar to the curriculum competencies which are being implemented as part of the revision to the current BC curriculum. In this sense I think I would be considered to be a proponent of the “new math” as it commonly called in popular media.

I recently attended the Northwest Mathematics Conference in Whistler and attended a breakfast keynote offered by Egan Chernoff in which he provided a great historical background of the Canadian Math Wars as the exist across the country. This session struck a chord with me. As a result I have not included it in my last blog post but have created a new one.

As Dr. Chernoff noted, the debate about “new” and “old” math seems to be an old one. It was the first time I have heard someone articulate the fact that the math I learned in school during the 70s and 80s was also new math. I had thought this for sometime but the references presented confirmed it. I believe that it is worth every math educators time to look over the presentation slides. Agree or disagree but as it was noted in the presentation at least be informed of both sides and not only the perspective in popular media.

The purpose of my post is not to take a side however (I think I did that in the first paragraph) but to note some common ground …

  • I think all educators would agree that it is important for students to understand the mathematics they are using. Although I would classify my education as more of a “back to basics” approach I do think the goal was for me to understand mathematics.  The disagreement is seems to be how to get there.
  • I think all math educators would agree that mathematics is more than the basic facts which seems to be the basis of the debate. Perhaps it is important to move beyond this small slice of an ever-growing area of study.
  • I think all math educators would agree that technology is a tool, it surrounds us but should not be a crutch upon which we build our understanding of mathematics. The issue seems to be the when to use it effectively.
  • I think all math educators would agree that there is a beauty to mathematics and it’s ability to explain the world around us. Students’ benefit when educators see this beauty, are excited about it and pass on a sense of wonder.

There are items I have missed in the list above. Indeed I left a few out intentionally as I think I have made my point. We do have some common ground as all sides of the debate appreciate the importance of mathematics. As we move through this next century there is one piece of common ground that we all need to focus on …

  • I think all math educators would agree that mathematics receives a “bad rep” in the popular press and society at large often portrayed as too hard or only accessible by the top students.

This issue will not be resolved as long as both side treat each other as combatants using media as drones to lobby the highest yielding explosives as possible at each. As Dr. Chernoff suggested at the conference perhaps it is time for both sides of the debate to be heard in the media. Wouldn’t this be better for mathematics education as a whole?


Reflecting on the Northwest Math Conference 2015

October 25, 2015

As I sit on the pool deck eager to watch my son swim, I wanted to write a quick post about the 2015 Northwest Mathematics Conference.

Let me start by saying it was an incredibly well run event in my opinion. Whenever you have over 1000 people in one place attending sessions, organizing lunches, trouble shooting AV equipment and a host of other small and large tasks it is hard to not have a couple of hiccups. I saw very few and that is only possible with a lot of planning for which I am grateful.

So you may be wondering … You went to a conference, what did you get out of it?” A couple of key themes emerge for me:

  1. Mathematics Is Exciting. Trevor Brown – presented a workshop with so much energy and enthusiasm for mathematics it was contagious. I don’t remember the name of his session I just remember his passion and excitement about mathematics. Do you really need more from a session as a teacher or a student of mathematics? Without passion what is there? Some resources that he presented others may like can be found on his article Teaching Mathematics in an Internet World.
  2. Mathematics Is Everywhere – Ron Lancaster’s opening keynote caught me by surprise as we looked at the beauty and wonder of buildings and the mathematics contained within them. This was followed by a closing session by Simon Singh pointing out the mathematics of the Simpsons. I can not imagine two more divergent examples. If mathematics can be found here surely it exists everywhere. Some interesting material posted on the conference site.
  3. Keep Questions Open – This was a recurring theme. While this is not new to me I was struck bu how often it came up during the NWMC15 sessions. In my last session of the conference Andrew Stadel (@mr_stadel) shared some insights on how to make close-ended textbook questions more open and exciting for students. I encourage others to check out the conference materials on his blog at Estimation180. Others who also reiterated the importance of not asking closed questions included: Chris Shore, Marion Small, Robert Kaplinski, Janice Novokowski, Carol Fullerton and many more
  4. Connections Matter – I appreciated the change to connect with some passionate mathematics educators I had not seen in several years. In fact there are too many to mention. I have learned from each on of them over the years. These connections were a continual source of ideas and inspiration during the conference. The connections were not limited to face to face interactions as I was also able to connect over twitter. I encourage others to check out #nwmc15 as there is a wealth of information. Connect with others on Twitter, read their blogs and check out their presentations. There is so much to learn.
  5. Stepping Out Of Our Comfort Zone – I have presented at conferences many times. I still get a little nervous excitement whenever I am leading a workshop or presenting a session. I think this is a good thing as it stretches us. I want to thank those colleagues, Lucia Mackenzie, Catherine Cade, Zyoji Jackson and Jim Williams, from SMUS who also stepped outside of their comfort zone to present. We ask students to take risks and share their thoughts. I applaud all of the presenters for their efforts.

I hope to reconnect with everyone on-line or at the conference next year.

Northwest Math Conference 2015

October 12, 2015

Part of being a professional is remaining sharp in your craft. For teachers, connecting and learning with other education professionals is an essential part of remaining on the top of your game. For many of us we do this by attending and/or presenting at teachers conferences.

Mathematics education is often bears the brunt of criticism and skepticism in the popular press. The latest trends and research in mathematics learning are often seen as irrelevant in the light of centuries of tradition in teaching mathematics as people speak out about the “new math.” I would still maintain the goals of mathematics remain the same and the current trends towards building higher order thinking, understanding concepts and developing computational fluency were the same goals of the “old math” even if the means of achieving these goals have been influenced by research in teaching and learning.

My goal for this post is not to argue which pedagogical methods are most effective but to focus on the benefits of having approximately 1000 mathematics educators in the same place to discuss their professional practice. As teachers descend on Whistler to attend the Northwest Mathematics Conference they will all be examining their own practice and how to improve as professionals. How can this not improve the education system in British Columbia, Washington and other neighbouring provinces and states.

I would like to extend my thanks to the many speakers and attendees before I have a chance to meet you. I know it will be a great conference and I am looking forward to it.

Week of Inspiration Math – Reflection

October 12, 2015

This year the Grade 7 and 8 math teachers at our school started our classes using materials from Jo Boaler’s Week of Inspirational Math site. As noted on the site,

“This week is about inspiring students through open, beautiful and creative math. We have chosen the different tasks so that students see math as a broad, interesting and visual subject that involves deep thinking. Students will learn important growth mindset messages that will help them feel confident, try harder all year, persist with open and difficult problems and embrace mistakes and challenge. All tasks are low floor and high ceiling – they are accessible to all students and they extend to high levels.” (see source here)

Through this week we were able to set some mathematics learning norms including:

  • everyone can learn math to the highest levels

  • we learn better together

  • mistakes are valuable

  • questions are really important

  • math is about creativity and making sense

  • math is about connections and communicating

  • math class is about learning not performing

These norms were developed as students watched videos from the site, participated in activities and discussions and tried to complete tasks which involved a low floor and high ceiling providing access and extension for all. Working in small groups students were provided with opportunities to discuss their learning.

For me the biggest benefit of using these materials and starting the year in this fashion was for students develop habits of mind that willbenefit them as the year proceeds. Benefits are already starting to show themselves as I am able to ask students to go deeper in they’re thinking, take risks and learn from their mistakes.

I am hopeful that this will continue for the year.


Are Teachers Hard On Themselves

May 11, 2014

This morning as I sit thinking about the past year I am left with the question, “Are teachers hard on themselves?” As educators we continually fine tune our ability to evaluate. We evaluate learning, behaviour and the lessons and activities in our classrooms. We expect to improve while we hope to have “the perfect lesson.” Is this possible? Is it too much to hope for? Do we evaluate ourselves to harshly?

I recently talked to one educator, who I consider to be doing a fabulous job, and this teacher had set expectations which were higher than had been attained. The educator puts in long hours works hard, cares about students and is continues to grow as a professional. At the same time the educator is not satisfied with the current situation and recognizes the need for current growth. I can emphasize with this individual.

When I went back to the classroom from the Ministry of Education in 2011 I had a solid knowledge of the curriculum. I knew how all of the pieces fit together and how linkages could be made between concepts in mathematics. I also felt I knew how to assess students both from a formative and summative perspective. In short I was ready and as prepared as anyone could be to go into a class and facilitate a high level of mathematics instruction.

All of that being said I have never been satisfied and have continually thought I could do better. I look for ways to improve every lesson, project, assessment and report card I write. With this in mind I ask, “Are educators too hard on themselves?”

I can not help but respond by saying that many are and this comes from a professional desire to grow and help students and a personal desire to be the best they can be. It seems to me that as long as educators continue to improve, respond to the needs of their students and are willing to evaluate their practice that is all they can ask of themselves. Some lessons will not work, some assessments will flop and sometimes days will not go well but every year we improve. To me that is what being a professional is about. It is not being perfect it is perfecting. This is the type of teacher I hope we all try to be and that we want to teach our children.

Math Challengers 2014

March 9, 2014

I had the pleasure of attending Math Challengers again this year at both the regional and the provincial level. Our grade 8 and grade 9 teams at SMUS did very well locally with one a first and third place finish at grade 8 and a first place finish at grade 9.

While I am extremely proud of our first place finishers I was most impressed with our third place team at the regionals. The team was composed of 4 grade 6 students and one grade 8 student. It was a real joy to see the look on the grade 6 students after they found out they were in third place. I was also impressed with the grade 8 student who was willing to join a team with the grade 6 students. I thought this was a real generous act and showed leadership on her part. The fact that she did well enough to go to the provincial contest was a just reward.

At the provincial level our teams did not do as well. No one placed in the top ten positions. I expect that this is partly because we do not practice as much as many of the other teams. Once a week seems to be the most we can manage but these area always great opportunities to get together to talk about mathematcs, make connections and solve problems that we would not normally address in class.

Regardless of how well our team finished our team members and coaches learned a lot over the course of the day. Listening to students talk about mathematics was a real treat for me. As teachers we often hear the negative talk around mathematics. Students in classes can often fall into the “I can’t do it” trap rather than following a path of discovery and figuring out how to do it. Not all problems are easy and I think this is what separates the math challengers students apart. Just as an athlete must sharpen his skills so too must these mathletes.

I encourage all educators in BC to establish teams of mathletes, attend regional competitions and hopefully go to provincials. If this is not possible due to costs or geography look at opportunities within districts to establish competions. Students love it and it helps promote mathematics.

Block Scheduling For Math Projects

February 15, 2014

AM OutsideOver the last couple of years our school has been able to schedule grade level math classes back to back. This has been a real advantage when designing projects to solidify and extend student learning of math concepts.

For grade 8 this means we have 2 “sets” of grade 8 classes composed of 3 blocks of grade 8 classes occurring at the same time. When completing our last unit on Nets, Surface Area and Volume of 3-D Objects, teachers were able to offer students three choices of projects:

  • poster  – develop a poster including nets and calculations for surface area and volume of a compound (right prism and cylinder) 3-D object
  • robot – create and determine the surface are and volume of a 3-D robot
  • SketchUp – use SketchUp to create a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) house and pool. Determine the amount of paint for the walls of the house, shingles for the roof and water to fill the pool.

Each of these projects meet the curricular outcomes for the course however, one has its own challenges and appeal to students.

For teachers any one of these projects is a great way to assess and extend student learning. The advantage of block scheduling has been to have one teacher assigned to each project and focus on the teaching, support and assessment of only one project.  When using a program like SketchUp it can be daunting to learn the program and teach it however, in our case only one of us was required to know the program well. This creates more of a willingness to take on more than one project and also to focus on areas that teachers are interested. A benefit for both students and teachers.

For grade 7 we have 2 “sets” of grade 7 classes composed of 2 blocks running concurrently. Our latest projects focus on enhancing student learning of the properties of circles and area (circles, triangles and parallelograms). The two projects for these concepts are:

  • SketchUp – design a 3-D water park, moon base or another structure
  • Lego Mindstorms – program a robot vehicle to create a path and calculate the are

The block scheduling approach has been a win-win for students and teachers. Students can choose their challenge, teachers can focus on doing one project well and providing extension. The big win for me personally is working with students who are not normally in my class. I am looking forward to more projects in the future as we continue to develop 21st Century Learning Skills.