Sparking a math revolution
Recently I was in a meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Education, where we were being introduced to a math coach who is to be placed at our school for two days per week. In that meeting, an interesting point was made by one of the officials. He said: "The coach was being placed at our school not because we are doing poorly but to help us improve our pass mark at CSEC mathematics, and that his skills were being wasted at the school he was originally placed." Interestingly, that school has a far lower pass rate in CSEC mathematics than ours.
Immediately, I began to ponder if the purpose of the coach would not be best served where the students were underperforming in mathematics. Should not the coach be utilised where the greatest need exists? Should not the coach be equipped to help the teachers at the named institution with the necessary skills in order to help them create better-performing students?
Cathy L. Seeley, in her book Faster Isn't Smarter, wrote: "When a school's mathematical performance differs significantly from group to group, the system has a problem not with an underachieving group but with the mathematics programme." I would add, not only with the mathematics programme itself, but with the education system on a whole, as for too long we have accepted that certain schools will forever be rooted at the bottom. The Ministry of Education has maintained the status quo by sending a large number of underperforming students to such schools.
The enhancement of math performance is paramount. We are facing an era focused on energy, climate change, and information technology. As such, we must prepare our students for the opportunities that will open up in these areas.
The Government has embarked on some initiatives to facilitate this process, including the employment of math coaches in some schools; offering scholarships to teachers; and trumpeting a problem-solving approach. Though these are positive steps, they do not go far enough, in my estimation, in solving the problems of mathematics education in Jamaica.
In order to raise mathematics competency of our students, we must embark on a whole-scale restructuring of how mathematics is taught. We should look at best practices in countries such as Japan and Norway whose students have consistently outperformed students of the United States in standardised tests. In an effort to improve mathematics performance, we must embark on a road that will facilitate our students' mathematical thinking. This will only help to create a society where our citizens will become better problem solvers and thinkers, thus playing a pivotal role in this flattening world.
A look into the Jamaican mathematics classroom will reveal that traditional styles of teaching haven't evolved. The traditional mode is primarily based in an algorithmic approach, where the teacher stands in front of the class to explain mathematical procedures, while the students copy the work. The teacher is the centre of attention. This system has proven that it is ineffective to adequately develop the rich mathematical experience of most students, as the majority continue to do poorly in mathematics on standardised tests such as CSEC mathematics.
As an educator for the past 20 years, I can attest to the fact that we are hard-pressed to complete the syllabus and have had to employ the algorithmic approach. It seemed then to be the most efficient way to accomplish this task. This, however, robs the students of the opportunity of developing a deeper appreciation of the subject, preventing them from engaging in real mathematical inquiries and reflection, as well as thwarting the development of students' mathematical thinking and creativity. In this style of teaching, great emphasis is placed on the teacher, with very little intellectual input from the students, thereby removing some of the responsibilities of the students learning from them.
The evidence of Jamaica's lack of critical thinking is revealed every day in the way we approach problems. It is manifested in the high crime rates, the way we tackle problems and the way in which we approach governance. The recent chik-V outbreak is a testament to this lack of critical thinking.
Some major stakeholders have seen this problem and have been calling on teachers to utilise a problem-solving approach, as this will help to develop the critical thinking of the students. But are our teachers equipped with the necessary pedagogy to implement this so that our students can significantly benefit? Is the Government doing enough to ensure that our teachers are properly equipped for the awesome tasks that need to be undertaken to change the scope of mathematics education?
One tool teachers can employ to improve students' critical thinking is journal writing. For too long we have seen mathematics as something that we do, but through writing, students can discover varied strategies to arrive at solutions, review their work, and allow for peer analysis. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000) stated, "Students who have opportunities, encouragement, and support for writing, reading and listening in mathematics classes reap dual benefits: they communicate to learn mathematics and they learn to communicate mathematically."
This tool is rarely employed in our school system, but it has proven to be quite beneficial in developing mathematical competency. Marilyn Burns (1995), a leading researcher in this field, states, "I've found writing in math class has two major benefits. It supports students' learning because, in order to get their ideas on paper, children must organise, clarify and reflect on their thinking. Writing also benefits the teacher because students' papers are invaluable assessment resources. Their writing is a window into what they understand, how they approach ideas, what misconceptions they harbour, and how they feel about what they are discovering."
This tool, therefore, is a valuable way in which teachers can diagnose student misconception in its early stages and a pertinent remedy for misconceptions. This is supported by Maggie Johnston, a ninth-grade teacher in Denver, Colorado. Johnston states, "Writing in mathematics gives me a window into my students' thoughts that I don't normally get when they just compute problems. It shows me their roadblocks, and it also gives me, as a teacher, a road map."
Therefore, as teachers of mathematics, we can employ the use of journal writing and other forms of writing in our classroom in an effort to improve our students' mathematical thinking.
It is true that employing this tool in the classroom will demand more from the teacher, given the already burdensome tasks that the teacher has to undertake, but the benefits of employing journal writing in the mathematics classroom outweigh the cons.
For too long we have been paying the price of poor mathematical thinking. For too long we have classified some students as dunce because of their mathematical competency. As a nation, we must employ the best practices that will ensure that our students succeed at mathematics. We must stop the stigmatisation and work wholeheartedly to improve the present situation.
The role of a teacher is very demanding, but to be an effective teacher, one has to be reflective. It is, therefore, pertinent that teachers reflect on our craft and employ the necessary tools that will aid our students' mathematical thinking.