Educators have been talking about changing the traditional way of teaching math for a long time, but nothing seems to change. Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article digs into why it has been so hard for U.S schools to effectively implement changes to math pedagogy, and just how far American students have fallen behind as a result. A lot of it comes down to ensuring teachers are comfortable with the new methods, she writes:

“In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices. The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.”

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

When Akihiko Takahashi was a junior in college in 1978, he was like most of the other students at his university in suburban Tokyo. He had a vague sense of wanting to accomplish something but no clue what that something should be.

  • Forrest_Higgs

    …because our math teachers are hidebound, nationally well-organized and absolutely certain that they know exactly how to teach maths all performance evidence to the contrary.

  • Atlas Educational

    Because teachers are handed a textbook, forced to take training on how to use it, and forced to build common assessments so they all teach the same way at the same pace to different learners. If that doesn’t make sense to you. ….. welcome to our current educational system.

    • I regularly hear that students from Asian families do better in maths in US schools. Here in Pakistan we teach maths like everywhere else, with textbooks oriented for common assessment. I personally know students (not all) who spend hours practising math questions. Where do you think the difference lies?

  • Epicrapbattlechem

    I disagree, I teach science, but I see the problem being that we underestimate how few really understand science and math. I would put the number of people that have a very high level of simple chemistry and physics under 100 in the world. And most of those are probably teachers or students of those teachers. The reality is the smartest people we have can get really good at advanced science but are never reinforcing their knowledge of basics and the overlap of physics and chemistry. That’s what goes wrong when you implement common core and other teaching methods. Honestly most science teaching methodologies are constructed in a bad system to improve the bad system. Look at how people describe heat in a macro sense so consistently poorly. So many professors apply thermo like it is not statistically based, as it were physically based and real. We need to reduce the stigma of teachers/highly educated not understanding their content and then address the lack of content knowledge amongst ourselves as severe.

  • Robin

    I taught in two very good elementary schools for 12 years and one huge problem I observed is that the majority of elementary teachers do not like teaching math. They often are not secure in their own math skills & even if they don’t say it directly, their students can tell that they’d rather be teaching reading, writing, or social studies. We need teachers working with our very young students to teach math confidently and ideally enthusiastically.

    • Anthony Carandang

      I’m a high school teacher and I’ve been teaching 30 years now. I have observed that also. Many elementary teachers don’t like math at all. When I was a student, from grade 1 and up we have had specialized math teachers, who’s job is only to teach math. I’m quite surprised when I moved to the US that elementary teachers are asked to teach multiple subjects instead of just one.

      When students get to high school not knowing how to multiple or divide you know there’s something very wrong with what we’re doing. There’s just too much standardized testing going that takes away from classroom instruction. In many countries around the world standardized testing is held on Saturdays and not during the school day.

  • Lokie

    It’s probably because you’re still looking at it the wrong way. We shouldn’t be focusing all our efforts on how changing how we teach maths. We should be understanding how students learn maths more effectively, then we can develop the pedagogies and design the learning.

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  • Bruce_William_Smith

    An interesting article on this is Dr. Aiping Xu’s “Investigation of Mathematical Cultures”, which suggests, in the developed world, the mathematical cultures of most anglophonic countries (including the United States) to be the weakest, surpassed, in ascending order, by those of England, eastern Europe, western Europe, and, on top, China and other east Asian countries.

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  • sarina

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  • LadyPack

    Perhaps we don’t construct our teaching around understanding and applying that understanding to the real world. Mathematicians see, in math, the beauty, relevance and connection to everyday life. Schools separate disciplines, ignore the way people learn at different ages, resist inquiry and ignore the child. Let’s face it, we’re still arguing about how children should be taught to read, rather than exploring the different ways people learn. Most people learn how to read, but it doesn’t make them good readers. Most people can do arithmetic, but they don’t truly understand math and science.

  • Jason Pine

    A student’s ability to process information quickly and efficiently and how that aoffects their ability to make decisions and choices is paramount, in not only the the student’s ability to learn, but perhaps more importantly, their educational outcomes. Increasing Cognitive Processing Speed significantly influences reading fluency, writing fluency and particularly math fluency. Our approach in teaching math, as well as all other content areas, needs to be holistic with the overall cognitive development of the student in mind. Certainly, the methodology is crucially important, but if we want to make a real impact, raise test scores and most importantly, create lifelong learners, we must increase students’ ability to process information. Here is a great resource to do so by using screen-free games: ow.ly/IDzwJ

  • barrygarelick

    See http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/06/common-sense-approach-common-core-math-standards for a discussion of Green’s article in the context of Common Core.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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