kitchen table math, the sequel: What are the underlying problems?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What are the underlying problems?

For each academic area, what do you think the underlying main problem or problems?

For example, for reading, I would say lack of teaching basics (phonics) first, and lack of teacher understanding of the phonetic structure of English, which leads them to such things as teaching 150 completely phonetic "sight words" as wholes, and 65 more which can be taught with about a dozen rules or patterns (example pattern: to, do, into, today, together.)

I'l be especially interested to see what people think about history. I know I didn't learn much history in school, and the little I did learn was so dry and boring it made me stay away from reading anything history related for years after finishing my education. (I'm now 1/3 of the way through Albion's Seed and am greatly enjoying it!)

A military friend of mine whose children have gone to many different Catholic schools in several different states said that while all his schools have used good math textbooks and methods, there was a wide variability in teacher knowledge, and that his children learned the most from teachers who truly loved and understood math. He also said someone who truly loved math generally wasn't the type of person who loved working with small children, so that while his children often had great math teachers at the upper levels, they seldom had great math teachers in the lower grades. (I'm not saying this is the problem with math, but it seems like it could be a strong underlying contributor at the elementary level.)

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, instead of phrasing it as "math people dont' like teaching young children", put it this way:

The kinds of people who like young children are, largely, young women. Largely, those young women came from ed school, and before that came from liberal arts backgrounds. They learned no math. They were afraid of math in school, probably even as children themselves. they never learned it, and don't get it.

This is a huge contributor to the problem of math (and of science) in grammar school. simply, the teachers don't know it, dont' understand it, and can't explain it. They went into liberal arts to avoid math and science, and they bring that avoidance into their classrooms.

Add to that the ed school bias against real quantitative data analysis, real scientific studies, etc. and you've ensured that most anyone who is scientifically minded wouldn't end up in ed school anyway.

The problem with math teaching is that the teachers don't understand math. This is even true in high school. There's lots of data on how they don't understand fractions or decimals, and reasonable evidence to conclude part of the reason they've stopped teaching long division was because they didn't understand it anyway, couldn't explain it, couldn't help a student who didnt' get it, etc.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, there are so many underlying problems, but let me list one:

the recent teachers don't know anything. They dont' know anything about ANYTHING. They received a "liberal arts" education that didn't teach them rhetoric, literature, history, or philosophy. It didn't teach them math or science. They don't know anything about Western Civilization as a whole, the major successes of it, the major empires and eras. They don't know the major developments in thought. they don't know which literature is great, and they don't know why. They don't know why the moon has phases, let alone how mitosis works, or why dividing fractions means "invert and multiply" let alone how to compute the volume of a solid sphere. They don't know the history of the US, much less Europe or Asia. They don't know much but diversity training, cultural relativism, etc.

if you don't know anything, you can't really teach anything.

Matthew K. Tabor said...

The most pervasive problem - the one that affects all the disciplines in K-12 education - is the lack of talent in the teaching/administration corps. Combine that with certification requirements that keep high-achieving, qualified people out of the profession and we've got a very serious staffing problem.

ElizabethB said...

"if you don't know anything, you can't really teach anything."

The really does sum up the problem in a nutshell, and is pretty catchy, too!

Rudolph Flesh and I think Blouke (of the old Open Court that did teach phonics and actual literature) but I'm pretty sure someone from the book "Let's Kill Dick and Jane" about Open Court's demise both thought that too, but specifically mentioned a lack of foreign language requirement as one of the biggest problems. They both thought learning a foreign language teaches you a lot about how to think and about language.

I did find that I didn't fully understand grammar until I saw it explained in the context of two different languages.

Catherine Johnson said...

the recent teachers don't know anything. They dont' know anything about ANYTHING. They received a "liberal arts" education that didn't teach them rhetoric, literature, history, or philosophy.

The problem is that this is largely true of parents, too, including me.

I barely know what the liberal arts disciplines are, which sorely limits my effectiveness as an advocate for teaching the liberal arts disciplines in K-12.

Parents intuit that something is gravely wrong, but we don't know what it is.

The one theme I hear most commonly from well-educated, successful, intelligent parents is that they want their kids to discuss current events in school.

That is pretty much the last thing I want my kid to spend his time doing at school ----- but these parents are correct that the result of a good liberal arts education is the ability to discuss current events knowledgeably and intelligently.

Because so many of us are so ill educated, we (royal we!) don't perceive that "intelligent discussion of current events" and "informed citizen" are the outcome - the output - of an education, not the input.

Most parents, I'm going to guess, are glad when they see their h.s. kids come home with an assignment to "create an exit strategy for Iraq" and write about it in two paragraphs.

This is a real assignment, btw, given to students who had not studied Iraq, the middle east, the military, etc.

"create an exit strategy for Iraq"

Catherine Johnson said...

and, btw, I am deliberately bracketing the issue of a teacher requiring students to adopt a particular political stance vis a vis Iraq

SteveH said...

Allison gets right to the point.

The other thing I've noticed is that many lower grade teachers select that career path because they want to "help" kids, especially the learning disabled. This sort of caring(?) nature does not like to set explicit standards for education. They never had it when they were growing up, and they never learned what it means. I can't imagine that someone who had a rigorous education would end up as a K-6 teacher. It's not only that K-6 teachers lack the knowledge, it's that they lack the understanding of what it takes to get that knowledge. They surely don't teach that in ed schools.


"... and that his children learned the most from teachers who truly loved and understood math. "

I will caution that a common refrain is that all we need are better prepared teachers. This often amounts to "professional" development classes in Everyday math.

What we really need is a math curriculum that can't be screwed up. We need specific grade-level expectations. We need teachers who can get the job done, and we need school administrators who don't let teachers screw up a whole classroom of kids.

What I don't like is how K-6 teachers try to pretend that lower expectations is better than higher expectations; that Everyday Math is somehow better than Singapore Math. Full-inclusion, discovery, thematic learning, and differentiated instruction are ways they try to pretend that less is more. They try to place the argument at a credible academic level so we don't see how incredibly vacuous it all is. They want to discuss constructivism rather than competence.

Instructivist said...

[the recent teachers don't know anything. They dont' know anything about ANYTHING. They received a "liberal arts" education that didn't teach them rhetoric, literature, history, or philosophy. It didn't teach them math or science.]

Prospective elementary teachers usually go from HS straight to "majoring" in education. I don't see where they would get a LA education, even in quotation marks.

Anne Dwyer said...

For the issue of division problems, the partitive model can also be called sharing. So an example would be that I have two people and 10 tennis balls, how many tennis balls would each person get? A measurement problem is how many twos are in 10? This is very easy to understand with whole numbers but becomes more obscure when talking about fractions.

As for why people who love math don't teach K-5, the obvious answer to me is that you don't actually get to teach a lot of math. You have to teach everything else too. If I could teach math only in elementary school, I would do it in a heartbeat.

But, of course, I would have to complete 46 credits including course work in another subject to I could have a major subject to teach and a minor subject to teach.

Catherine Johnson said...

I am strongly opposed to thematic learning.

Strongly opposed.

Catherine Johnson said...

As for why people who love math don't teach K-5, the obvious answer to me is that you don't actually get to teach a lot of math. You have to teach everything else too. If I could teach math only in elementary school, I would do it in a heartbeat.

I agree.

ElizabethB said...

"If I could teach math only in elementary school, I would do it in a heartbeat."

And they should let you--and some engineers and scientists, especially retired ones needing a little bit of something to do.

My friend thought, and I think he's probably right, that either hired math teachers rotating through the classes or actual scientist/engineer/math people teaching math at the elementary level would be most helpful.

And maybe they should be teaching science, too!

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed can fill you in on history.

In a nutshell the problem is social studies.

Catherine Johnson said...

You'll have to talk to Ben Calvin!

(He's our resident Albion's Seed expert.)

I still haven't gotten to that book.

Haven't even bought it.

Anonymous said...

---My friend thought, and I think he's probably right, that either hired math teachers rotating through the classes or actual scientist/engineer/math people teaching math at the elementary level would be most helpful.

I have grown to REALLY DISAGREE with this.

Until there's scripted Direct Instruction for math in grades 5-8, teaching math is really not something that mathematicians, scientists, and engineers can jump in and do well. It's REALLY DIFFICULT to explain WHY math is true. It's hard for Catherine to do it, it's hard for me to do it, and really, it's not something that a skilled engineer or mathematician has spent any time thinking about.

Just go read the above posts on fractions and percent problems and my post on how to explain why multiplication of fractions works. It's not obvious, it's not easy, and putting such people into classrooms without thinking deeply about pedagogy, or without good scripting won't help.

This is not to say that just scripting is sufficient--it isn't. you need the math, too. But it's not enough to have the math. Teaching well really does require recognizing how to tell the truth of math without needing college level sophistication. we need not just love of the material, but a way to create Direct Instruction that is bulletproof for math.

ElizabethB said...

"Just go read the above posts on fractions and percent problems and my post on how to explain why multiplication of fractions works. It's not obvious, it's not easy, and putting such people into classrooms without thinking deeply about pedagogy, or without good scripting won't help."

Script them, by all means.

Have them go through a short how to teach class and have them watch a video/see a script of someone teaching each concept they will cover correctly first.

I'd actually prefer a video of a superb instructor than what people are getting now in many schools, and I'm all for limiting TV time.

I used to be suspicious of video classes, but 2/3 of my Industrial Engineering degree was video classes--the main campus was 3 hours away. I learned as much, if not more, in the video classes as in the live classes. As a bonus, if you couldn't understand the accent of your instructor or didn't understand the concept, you could rewind and watch again. We were able to fax back and forth our work if we got stuck and they would help you, or e-mail questions for a non-math type course.

palisadesk said...

>I can't imagine that someone who had a rigorous education would end up as a K-6 teacher

Well, I did. A very rigororous education. I learned Greek,Latin, French and German (beginning in elementary school), medieval, renaissance and modern history (Europe, USA and world), chemistry, physics, geology, botany, astronomy,zoology (a comprehensive curriculum in sciences, math, English, history, psychology etc. was required, right through second year of college). It was far from perfect but it was definitely academically rigorous and demanding. I shared some of the details privately with Catherine, who will probably agree that it was a fairly high-powered academic preparation.

A friend and high school classmate who subsequently went to Oxford (graduated there with first-class honors) and got a PhD from U Mass, also teaches elementary. She was our class valedictorian and got the most 800's on her SATs and other College board tests (this was before re-norming).

That reminds me I just got an email from her; she is at a new school (private) teaching Latin to elementary kids (starting in Gr 4 or 5 I think). She has been in the private sector; except for one year in a very prestigious DC-area primary school while I got my MA, my experience has been exclusively in public schools (various grades, three different districts).

I never took any undergraduate education courses (I don't think they were even offered). To get certified to teach elementary I had to take them at the graduate level. The "basic" ones were a joke, but the graduate level ones were mostly in the regular academic departments of the university (statistics, psychology, etc.) and were demanding and very useful.

My own district, a large urban one, is very selective in hiring teachers (salaries are competitive) and few to none that I've met have undergraduate education degrees: many went to prestigious schools and got their certification as a postgraduate degree.

On my staff of 45 or so, at least two besides me are similarly well-educated. It's not the norm but it is not rare, either. I would expect that in the higher-SES areas it might be relatively commonplace but I am speculating because I don't have any experience in such venues. My district has some schools in catchment areas where the homes are in the muti-million range but I've never worked in one. Interviewed for a position in one once and was blown away by what a different world it was -- resources, staff etc. practically overflowing, while at my low SES school we didn't have a library, or even pencils and paper.

C'est la guerre...