Saturday, March 24, 2007

Maths education: Are we on the cusp of a counter reformation?

It seems that direct instruction is gaining in popularity these days. Many people are getting disenchanted with reform Maths. The following links have caught my attention this week:
The first is an article reporting on the work of Dr Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research. Dr Rowe worked with primary school teachers, encouraging them to use direct instruction. He reports positive results that surprised him and the teachers alike. The second is a video presentation by Dr Cliff Mass of the University of Washington. He argues that a noticeable drop in the mathematical ability of freshmen coincided with the introduction of "reform math".

At teachers' college, most of my lecturers were wedded to the ideals of reform mathematics. They often told us that traditional maths did not make sense. It taught algorithms and methods in a disconnected way. Students could not see the connection between concepts and did not find maths engaging and meaningful. As a high school maths teacher, I find it hard to conclude that students are finding maths any more connected or meaningful as a result of their grounding in reform maths.

When I learned my mathematics in a very traditional school, I certainly found that it made sense. We were trained in the art of geometric proofs. This was something that engaged both our memories and higher thinking skills. We had to answer worded problems in arithmetic from an early age. Just because we did not work with manipulatives did not mean that we memorised algorithms and worked purely by rote.

My fear now is that we go back to the basics with the same zeal that we went into reform maths. Some of the leaders of the new movement ridicule the notion of maths teachers valuing problem-solving. I don't want us to throw the baby out with the bath water. The "reform" period has produced excellent research and teachers' practice cannot have stood still all this time.

What we need is to encourage teachers to use direct instruction and to really put back some meat into the maths curricula of the middle years. What we do not need is a witch hunt against teachers who employ some of the excellent activities that reform maths has brought to the fore. Teachers must be free to choose the pedagogical approach that most suits each situation, taking into consideration the syllabus and their students' capabilities.

As the first of the articles ends: "Dr Rowe said results from the study did not mean that constructivist teaching methods were wrong. The approach had merit, but problems with student learning arose when constructivist activities preceded explicit teaching or replaced it."