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What Got Me Going....and What Do I Face Near the End?

In 1979, Jim Fey, University of Maryland math educator, published "Mathematics Teaching Today: Perspectives from Three National Surveys" (Mathematics Teacher). The article was the result of a NSF case study in 1978.

This article impacted me greatly at the time...I wonder if a similar study now would produce the same results? That is, my hope is that some changes (positive?) have occurred!

In the study, Fey noted: "In all math classes I visited, the sequence of activities was the same. First answers were given for the previous day's assignment. The more difficult problems were worked by the teacher or a student at the chalkboard. A brief explanation, sometimes none at all, was given of the new material, and problems were assigned for the next day. The remainder of class was devoted to working on the homework while the teacher moved about the room answering questions. The most noticeable thing about math classes was the repetition of this routine."

So, what has changed? Perhaps the only difference is that the work is now done via a document camera rather than a chalkboard. But, based on feedback from my practicum students, the routine still reigns supreme!

In his article, Fey also included three comments from classroom teachers. These comments had a lot to do with my personal/ professional decision to leave the secondary math classroom and focus on mathematics teacher education. I had to try to change things!

The three comments:

  • "We've found that traditional methods (of instruction) work. This is the way it was taught to us in high school and the way it was taught in college and the way it works for us...I don't think kids can handle inquiry...they just don't have the background and sophistication."
  • "The problem most common to us teachers is that we can't keep real algebra exciting for students. when the students ask, 'How am I going to use this stuff?' our usual answer is foggy. The only answer is in higher education."
  • "Hard and boring. That's why I got into math. trying to figure out how to make it not boring. I have been disillusioned. It is a drag."
Elements from these three comments have formed the basis of my work with teachers. How to shift from the traditional mode to more effective classroom approaches? How to demonstrate to students that learning mathematics has value beyond applications in furture courses? And, how to teach and learn math so that it is fun and exciting (not a drag!)?

Yet, after 32 years as a university mathematics educator, I must admit little progress has been made. I see glimpses of progress, but too often they are extinguished by the "system."

That is, former students have actually apologized to me for both losing their focus on problem solving and trying to make mathematics exciting...because it was hard work, and they soon discovered that the math teacher using the traditional approach with no preparation...was getting paid the same as (or more than) them.

And then yesterday, one of my students sent me an e-mail: "I've noticed that there are so many people who know that the education system isn't where it should be, but it doesn't seem like a lot of people are doing anything about it."

How do I respond?