Math paths: 3 ways to teach the subject more meaningfully

Online issues: 'Getting students to do work that is simply not interesting is going to be hard,' math researcher says
By: | July 8, 2021

The COVID-driven shift online, and subsequent learning losses in math, exposed some of the critical flaws in how the subject has traditionally been taught, researchers say.

Math education researchers at Southern Methodist University say they are disappointed but not surprised to learn that state STAAR test results show students fell furthest behind in math during the pandemic.

“Engaging students in math during online learning is really difficult,” says Candace Walkington, a math curriculum expert at SMU’s Simmons School of Education. “Without the very tight management and student tracking that comes with physically being in the classroom, getting students to do work that is simply not interesting is going to be hard.”

Many schools teach mathematics as rules to remember and practice, adds math education researcher Annie Wilhelm. “If students take a break from practicing the rules, like during the pandemic, they will forget them.”

Here’s how superintendents and the team can revamp math instruction to better engage students, recover from COVID learning loss, and continue to increase achievement.

1. Make math meaningful: Walkington has spent three years connecting algebra concepts with careers. In her study, students selected STEM careers, watched videos of how professionals use algebra and then completed algebra problems related to that career.

The exercise increased student interest. While in other studies, Walkington found students were captivated to learn math by designing outdoor “STEM walks” and to learn geometry through body motion.

2. Fewer rules, more big ideas and applications: Teachers should put math problems into context, says Annie Wilhelm.

To learn the area of a rectangle, for example, standard textbooks display a rectangle with length and width measurements. Students can use a calculator to multiply the length times the width but often don’t understand “why” the problem matters.

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But providing context, such as asking students to figure out how many gallons of paint will cover a specific wall, emphasizes reasoning and other big picture ideas, she says. Wilhelm is now researching mathematics instruction practices that best serve historically marginalized students.

3. Teach statistics and the math people really use: Students pursuing certain STEM fields must learn advanced math in high school to navigate college courses. But educators should revise K-curriculum to create data-literate citizens, as jobs rely more and more on data analysis, Wilhelm says.

And engineers rarely, if ever, use algebra concepts such as polynomial, logarithmic and exponential functions, Walkington’s research also shows. Instead, engineers need to be able to visualize and analyze data.

“The pandemic is forcing us to acknowledge that what we have been doing, the way we have been teaching math, is simply not working,” Walkington says. “There is a real disconnect between the math taught in school and the really important math used in careers and in society.”