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Saving Mathematics Education...Thinking and Sense Making!

Contrasting directly with last week's suggested book The Shoelace Book: A Mathematical Guide to the Best [and Worst] Ways to Lace Your Shoes, this week I suggest Jo Boaler's What's Math Got To Do With It?. The first book is an excursion through some odd yet interesting mathematics, while Boaler's book focuses on "Helping children learn to love their least favorite subject--and why it's important for America" (from book's subtitle).

It is easy to get discouraged over issues surrounding (and sometimes overshadowing) mathematics education. Examples include the destructive rhetoric of the math wars, the competitive ranking of countries by their students' performance on international exams, diatribes against classroom teachers, and the increasing involvement of politics in the making of educational decisions.

Jo Boaler addresses many of these issues,using her own research with secondary students as an informative context. She also suggests concrete solutions:

  • Enhancing teaching approaches within mathematics classroom
  • Essential strategies for students trying to learn mathematics
  • Advice for parents on how to best support both students and teachers
  • Helping teachers, parents, and students work together towards a "positive relationship with math, feel capable in the face of mathematical problems, and ultimately contribute to...society.
Interspersed with some interesting mathematical problems, Boaler's suggestions for change are proactive, positive, and reasonable. For example, consider these questions (adapted from Ruth Parker, Mathematics Education Collaborative) that should be raised regarding how mathematics is taught and learned in schools:
  • Is our mathematics program teaching children to think and reason and make sense of the mathematics they are learning?
  • Is practice with skills provided in engaging, challenging, and mathematically important contexts?
  • Is mathematics, not just arithmetic, being taught?
  • Is persistence valued over speed?
  • Are problem solving and a search for patterns at the core of all that children are asked to do?
  • Is numerical reasoning emphasized?
  • Does the mathematics program emphasize that there is almost always mre than one way to solve a mathematics problem?
  • Does it present mathematics as relationships to be understood rather than recipes to be memorized?
  • Are children the ones who are doing the thinking and sense making?
The last question seems extremely relevant today, amidst the negative press and rhetoric regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics. Thus, let me change the question somewhat: How can we get parents and teachers back working together...thinking and sense making? That is, these two valuable qualities should not be reserved just for students!