Wherever there is a gathering of math teachers, it is not uncommon to hear complaints of new initiatives that have been thrust upon them. The older and wiser typically console, “This, too, shall pass.” The implication is to make it look good for the teacher evaluation and then go back doing what we have been doing. Many of us have seen initiatives make their way into our classroom for the purpose of helping a new administrator with his or her thesis. We can point to No Child Left Behind with all of its flaws, but I think it is inaccurate to claim we learned nothing from it. Why are administrators, rather than math teachers, making these decisions? There are many reasons for which math teachers can do nothing, but there are other reasons that are entirely in our court.
I have often heard, “I don’t need to change because my scores are good.” Statements like that make me wonder if that person has a Twitter account. Are they aware of P21.org? Whose scores are they comparing. To me, that’s as silly as saying I deserve to go to heaven because I’m not as bad as Charles Manson. That comparison does not help me sleep well at night.
Administrators who do not have a strong math background are at the mercy of the research they read. The research says our students are changing, technology is changing what students need, and explorative pedagogical strategies can get us all closer to meeting the needs. Teachers who read education news on a regular basis understand that, but many don’t. Teachers who do not understand what is changing outside their classroom and do not understand how students within their classroom have changed, often believe students are becoming lazier. Math teachers’ work is becoming harder because force-feeding math to disinterested students is exhausting.
It is a privilege to be an older teacher without the responsibility of young children at home. I have time to read the research and experiment with non-direct instruction. I can see for myself which research makes sense as I observe the effects of non-direct instruction with my students. See my reflections here. I understand most of my administrators’ initiatives to be good and needed.
Administrators can become frustrated when math teachers insist there is no more efficient way to teach math than by providing examples for each type of problem, step-by-step, and having students rehearse with “Classroom Instruction That Works.* For example, some math teachers feel that having students explain their thinking is an unnecessary burden because students have to “get it” to explain and shouldn’t have to explain once they “get it.” Those teachers do not understand the power of evolving understanding and growing logic skills that come with problem-based-learning. They believe PBL to be a waste of time that should be devoted to rehearsing processes.
Because of shifts in the US economy, our students need math skills that are useful in addressing real problems. Classically, “word problems” have been at the end of a exercise set and few students could solve them. Much of the time, those problems followed a consistent pattern which advanced students could memorize and apply within similar contexts. In order for students to be prepared to take on modern occupations, our instruction must change dramatically. Administrators who read education news see that, and are attempting to lead us into meeting those needs. When we don’t see the need, moving us takes place by force or by increments so tiny it takes decades for an appreciable difference to be made.
Teachers who would have the time to look into these things often have retirement in sight and are disinterested in taking on an entirely different set of pedagogical strategies. For that reason, it is up to administrators to advocate for change. That is a tough row to hoe, but those of us in the classroom who understand the big picture can be cheering them on.
*Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.