Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Why Is Teaching Mathematics So Different Than Teaching Other Subjects?

       My entire professional career has been in Secondary Mathematics.  As a middle school teacher, high school teachers, department chair, and supervisor; I have been immersed in the field of teaching and learning mathematics.  Whenever conversations arise about the instruction for very weak students or for very advanced students, there seems to always be special considerations for students when it comes to mathematics.  Principals, school counselors, and special educator alike all agree that the teaching and learning of mathematics seem to require very different skills compared to the teaching and learning of reading and history and (perhaps) other subjects.

       Keith Devlin has a relatively simple answer to this question which he explains in his paper written for the Mathematical Association of America titled, In Math You Have to Remember, In Other Subjects You Can Think About It.  Devlin explains that mathematics is often taught as a series of rules that you just have to memorize.  Whereas other subjects such as history and science are taught within a context that help the learner to make sense of the content.  Mathematics could be taught within a context (and, I would say SHOULD be taught within a context), but it usually isn't.  This makes mathematics seem like a secret language with tricks and complicated rules that sometimes work in some situations and don't work in other situations.  When mathematics is taught as merely a bunch of skills without any understanding of how and when to use these skills, many students struggle to be successful.


       In her book Mathematical Mindsets, Stanford professor Jo Boaler explains that all students can learn mathematics if teachers are equipped to help students to build understanding.  While it is relatively easy for trained secondary mathematics teachers to learn these techniques, most teachers have not received this training when they were in college.  Furthermore, most adults today (parents, school principals, school counselors, etc) grew up learning mathematics through a strictly procedural approach.  Because of this experience, most adults believe that mathematics should be taught as a bunch of skills.


       Fortunately, more and more teachers are mixing more and more conceptual understanding in their mathematics classrooms along with learning the skills.  There are places in which math is taught somewhat differently than it was taught in past generations, and this is a good thing in my opinion even if it makes some parents feel uncomfortable.  Math should not be taught as 100% skills without any connection to the real world.  For most students, this sort of instruction is just too abstract for them to understand.


       Mathematics is also a subject that builds on itself from school year to school year.  Students need to have a good understanding of the concepts so that they can build on previously learned content to understand the new content.  This idea of building from year to year is more prevalent in mathematics than it is in other subject areas.



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