Recently, the Program for International Student Assessment ranked the United States below international averages in mathematics. West Virginia lags behind most of our country in math scores. To transform outcomes, we need flexible problem-solving where students better understand the math they’re learning and how to use it.
I'm in my seventh year of coaching and leading the math department in Pocahontas County in rural West Virginia. Our test scores have grown from around average in West Virginia to rival the best-performing states in the country in middle and high school. At the core of my work is the task of shifting the paradigm of teaching and learning math. I have modeled and mentored, trained teachers and immersed myself in new standards that ask us all to attend to the “Why?” and “What now?” of math and not just to the doing of arithmetic and algebra.
I am seeing the beginnings of a fresh vision of what a math department can look like. Teachers are collaborating and peer-reviewing, and designing lessons and department-wide structures for deepening student engagement with mathematics. As successes grow in spirit and test scores, I am witnessing the transformation of a teaching culture.
When I was a kid, no one wanted me to make sense of problems – I was to learn an algorithm for a situation and perform it efficiently. Teachers today are preparing kids for future careers that we haven’t considered yet, because they don’t exist. This change alone has huge implications for our actions as teachers and for our outcomes systemically, as we are to be building thinkers and problem-solvers, not just replicators of math processes.
Math is still math. We still learn our times tables and how to graph quadratics and much more statistics than we did a decade ago. But there are new universal standards that are about what “doing math” actually looks like.
We need to grapple with complex problems and stick with solving them. We need to understand and use multiple approaches. We must be able to apply what we know, communicate effectively, be deep listeners and laser-like critiquers of all outcomes and conclusions – even our own. This is clearly a moment where we must join together to redefine doing math for students.
Really doing math is dependent on being wrong often – then delving into an analysis of why. This is a major paradigm shift from most teachers’ constructs of what “best” math teaching looks like. It is messy. There is discomfort. It makes you twitch in your seat. It requires that we let students grapple, let them learn to move through unknowing towards trying and into figuring things out. This happens, in part, by letting them have the supportive space to do so and putting the reins on our instinct to do the math for them. A parallel paradigm shift needs to happen in the worlds of teacher training and support. When presented with problems, teachers need a community in which to be a bit messy – to try out ideas, both mathematical and pedagogical, to test and revise them, to learn from being wrong and to grow with collective challenge, support and input.
Joanna Burt-Kinderman, MS ’15, Higher Education Teaching and Learning, is the math coach for Pocahontas County Schools in West Virginia. Follow her work online at problematizingmathteaching.com. Hear Joanna at work in the Sparked podcast episode “Through the Math Forest” online at wvumag.wvu.edu/sparked.