Mathematical literacy is fundamental to everyday life. The United States requires a strong foundation of mathematical literacy in its workforce and leadership. However, the math achievement gap between highest and lowest performing U.S. 4th graders is ranked one of the largest in the world as of 2019 giving pause, even though financial literacy and problem-solving skills are so crucial to our future as a nation. Traditional methods of teaching math have clearly contributed to ever-widening performance gaps in our students, which can translate to salary differences later in life.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics asserts that to close mathematical learning gaps, all students must have access to "high-quality instruction, challenging curriculum, innovative technology, exciting extracurricular offerings, and the differentiated supports and enrichment necessary to promote students' success at continually advancing levels." Effective math education needs to engage and enrich students from all backgrounds.
Math educators with the specialized training from graduate programs, like Southeastern Oklahoma State University's Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Math online program, are prepared to utilize contemporary, research-based methods for teaching mathematics, which emphasize real-world problem solving, innovative technologies and culturally responsive practices.
Focus on Problem Solving
According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the term "problem-solving" in math settings refers to "mathematical tasks that have the potential to provide intellectual challenges for enhancing students' mathematical understanding and development."
A problem-solving approach to math education requires a shift from traditional teacher-directed approaches to a more student-centered, dialogic approach. Students should not only be seeking solutions to problems, but they should learn math through problem-solving, because tackling real problems offers students insight into mathematical principles and their applications in the world around them. Many educators believe this is beneficial because when students understand the purposes and principles behind math, they are more likely to appreciate and retain knowledge and skills they learn. In addition, students can then transfer or apply their learning in new contexts.
Incorporate Computer and Data Science
In an interview with USA Today, Stanford mathematician and leading advocate of the math education reform movement Jo Boaler points out the benefits of computer-based data analysis for math curricula in countries with higher-performing students. She argues that the use of data science and statistics in the PK-12 classroom is essential to reforming U.S. math education. Students can develop skills like computer programming as a vehicle for learning mathematical concepts that will transfer to real-world competencies later in life.
Utilize Video Games
Students don't have to develop problems and skills in real-world settings. When math is made relevant to students in various ways, they are more likely to engage with material.
Take, for instance, video games. In an interview with Forbes, Stanford mathematician Dr. Keith Devlin suggests that video game play encourages learning because the games act as "activity simulators with a dopamine reward system." When mathematics learning is embedded in the doing of mathematics, it has the power to improve focus, engagement and retention, according to Dr. Devlin.
Be Culturally Responsive
Culturally responsive teaching is based on the understanding that students come to the classroom with a wide variety of experiences, needs and cultural backgrounds. A large part of the math learning gap in the U.S. is attributed to inequitable experiences in schools. According to educational researchers, students with affluent backgrounds have more opportunities to experience rigorous and innovative techniques for teaching mathematics.
Assumptions based on socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnicity often lead educators to believe students cannot learn more difficult math skills. Culturally responsive math teachers are careful to foster meaningful relationships with each student and create opportunities for rigorous learning based on individual student needs. They also prioritize students' curiosities in order to connect students' cultural, familial and academic interests.
Clearly, relevance is the common thread running throughout each of these approaches to improving math education. By making math relevant to all students, educators can contribute to the closure of the math learning gap that threatens American students' futures.
National Council for Teachers of Mathematics:
NCTM Position: Access and Equity in Mathematics Education
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