I am the Problem, but I Resolve to Fight Smarter

“Math needs better marketing” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Today is the last day of summer. Tomorrow, a week of district PD begins in my district, followed by the first day of school just after labor day. It’s a great time to reflect upon a summer of learning and how I will use what I have learned to improve my instructional practice.  Upon reflection, I have reached one scary conclusion.

I am the problem with math education.

It’s true.

It’s not that I am a bad teacher (I hope not anyway….).  My students do well, I work to improve myself professionally, and I try my best to share what I know with colleagues.  But what happens inside the classroom walls just isn’t enough anymore.

Recently, I was driving with my sister, and the conversation turned towards school and how my niece and nephew were doing.  The topic of math was certain to come up, in particular how math “looks” differently now in some ways than how we were taught.  It was then that my sister summarized her observations of today’s math homework:

“It’s retard math”

I could have responded with an explanation of what I knew about the common core. About the need to have students experience math differently, through partial products, through thinking in groups, by drawing arrays, and the certain value all of these alternative approaches would hold in building understanding as her children head towards Algebra, where thinking abstractly now will be a huge benefit. I could have given her a synopsis of my thoughts on the off-base and overly-simpistic Facebook posts regarding standard algorithms vs “new” methods, or how the Standards of Mathematical Practice are changing how math teachers consider instruction.   I could have told her how Frank Noschese and Chris Robinson are super-heroes, for standing up to all of us in their twitter discussions with sound-bite artists.

But I didn’t do any of that.

I let the subject drop.

It was just easier that way.

Rather than entertaining a real debate, I gave up. And that’s a problem.

This clip featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson summarizes why we need math, and why we need to promote the pursuit of higher-level math now more than ever.

At this year’s Siemens STEM Institute, Cindy Moss challenged us all to think about what we would do in the next 6 hours, 6 days, 6 weeks, and 6 months relative to what we had learned at the Institute.  I never did make that list. So with one last night before the start of another school year…here goes:

  • 6 hours: write this post and share out Cindy’s great thoughts and ideas by sharing the Livestream below.
  • 6 days: share some great new tools, and work with my colleagues to develop effective practices around them
  • 6 weeks: start a new part of the blog of my daily math class openers. I use many videos, resources, and stories to open my class, even if they are not connected with the current content. These are often the highlights of our learning day.
  • 6 months: have a serious conversation with my sister about why drawing arrays or counting rainbows isn’t “retarded”.

This year’s school resolution – be more aggressive in highlighting new and innovative practices, and work to be a more effective instructional leader.

If you have an hour, enjoy Cindy’s talk below. You’ll pick up some great ideas, and feel energized about your ability to make STEM work at your school.


By Bob Lochel

HS Math Teacher. Hatboro-Horsham School District, Horsham, PA.

4 replies on “I am the Problem, but I Resolve to Fight Smarter”

People who study math are weird. People who teach math are weird. people who teach statistics are not quite as weird but not to be trusted, People who teach engineering, even Control engineering, the most mathematical branch, are not weird at all. I have done all of these and this summarises the reactions and responses of the rest of humanity. I have done my best to enlighten people but what a struggle. I think there will always be people who “can’t do math”. the only hope is that their number can be reduced. This may happen if we can get away from math only as a set of methods and rules using mysterious symbols. the joke is that those who are intent on a mathematical career don’t see it that way, they see past that aspect. Try convincing “people” of that one !! Don’t forget, artists are weird as well.

I think many people have a problem with the CC approach to mathematical understanding for a couple of reasons.

A)It’s different from how they were taught in school. Different=scary. What if this “new approach” totally messes up my kid and he ends up worse off than me? Education has a track record of throwing around initiatives that disappear, but this is math. It will never disappear. “If the way I was taught was incorrect, does that mean I’m worthless” is unfortunately the perception people have when confronted with alternative approaches.

B)They do not understand that the level of understanding of a teacher and student can vary greatly, widely, and in a myriad of ways. Pick a topic and speak to someone with minimal understanding about it. Unless you have the heart of a teacher, you will spend a minimal time investment with that person. Teachers don’t have that option and now our jobs depend upon reaching every kid…..every kid….every day. It’s life or death. We have no choice but to break down understanding as concretely as we can and with as many approaches as we can to ensure that learning.

We don’t get to be a parent helping at home with his child’s homework giving up and saying, “ask your teacher” or “figure it out yourself”. The complex must be broken frown simply to reach EVERY child and to extend understanding necessary for application at the next step. Gone are the days of “Follow this procedure and if you don’t get it, that’s okay because the next topic is different.”

Learning is all connected and that’s wonderful, but also more difficult for instruction. CC places a burden (appropriately) on genuine conceptual understanding and connections. Having the support would go a long way in helping our children be successful.

I would be very happy with the CC if I was confident that the testing process wasn’t going to reduce it to “more of the same, but different”. I nay be a bit cynical but I cannot get rid of a vision of kids rote learning the “explanation” stuff, for test purposes.

Excellent, and while you’re at it, please ask your sister to refrain from using the “R word”. It has no place in our society just like the “N word” doesn’t. I have completed my 6 hr/6 day plan and well on the way to my 6 wk/6 mth plan. Keep on keeping on – love your blog.

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