kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/5/10 - 12/12/10

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Revolutionizing Math at the School of the Future

(Cross-posted at Out in Left Field)

A front page article in Monday's Local News section of the Philadelphia Inquirer profiles a math class at Philadelphia's Microsoft-funded High School of the Future, whose teacher, Thomas Gaffey, placed second in Microsoft's U.S. Innovative Education Forum and was a semi-finalist in its Worldwide Innovative Education Forum. In Gaffey's ninth-grade algebra class there are:
No textbooks, no paper, no chalk, no desks, and no assigned seats.

Instead, students use laptops while sitting in rolling chairs at trapezoidal tables spaced out in hexagonal classrooms.
Just how newsworthy this sounds to you depends on whether you think chair mobility and table shape have a big influence on learning, on whether you've been following current trends in education over the last 50 years, and on how unusual you think it is for a teacher to "encourage his students to find answers to their own questions" and engage with them in exchanges like these:
"Is this an obtuse triangle?" one student asks.

"Well, what can you tell me about an obtuse triangle?" Gaffey replies.

"One of the angles has to be more than 90 degrees," the student answers.

"Are any of the angles here like that?"

"Yeah. Oh, I get it now!"
As the Inquirer explains:
This snippet of student-driven discussion is a glimpse of the style and approach that have earned Gaffey national and international recognition.
Student-driven? Who's asking most of the questions? But I'm splitting hairs here. What I should be asking is: Why does this kind of exchange warrant international recognition?

To fair, it wasn't this, specifically, that earned Gaffey his honors. Rather:
Les Foltos, one of the judges who reviewed Gaffey's work, was impressed by his emphasis on "actively engaging students in solving real-world problems." As Gaffey puts it, "If we want to teach math to learners, we should teach math how it is actually used. It doesn't matter how much you know. It matters what you can do."
Ah yes, "real world problems." Again, only if you've been out of touch with the last half century of educational reform, and with today's Reform Math in particular, will this strike you as revolutionary. Here is Gaffy's version of real world math:
In his classroom on a recent Tuesday, Gaffey's challenge to his "learners" - as students in the Parkside public school are called - was to estimate Earth's land area.

To solve the problem, the class first covered basic concepts about area and polygons - shapes with three or more straight sides.

Gaffey then asked, "If a shape has four sides, is it always a polygon?"

Learners who answered yes (the wrong answer) were asked to redefine what a polygon is, while those who answered no were asked to draw a four-sided shape that was not a polygon on the class "smart board."

Gaffey drew a shape with three straight sides and one curved side.

"Is this a polygon?" he asked.

"No," the class responded.
The class drew lines through each of the continents, chopping them up into complex polygons, then simple polygons.

The final phase was to derive formulas for the areas of the simple polygons, and add up the areas.
This sort of problem is not particularly new, as a quick survey through now-standard textbooks like Everyday Math and the Interactive Math Program makes clear. And it's been around long enough to have garnered some serious criticism--specifically in what Barry Garelick calls its "just in time" approach to teaching.

Among other things, "just in time" often means serious delay. For example, one would hope that students would already know the formulas for the areas of simple polygons, and how to derive them, well before they hit 9th grade.

But because so many students are so far behind where they should be, there is one thing in which I and Gaffey are in whole-hearted agreement. In Gaffey's words, as cited by the Inquirer:

"Math education, more than any other subject, is in need of drastic reform."