Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Straw Teacher

When people argue for a position they hold because of political bias or some deep-rooted sense of conviction (as opposed to one arrived at by a process of reflection, weighing all sides of the issue), they often resort to straw-man tactics. This is particularly common in the U.S Math Wars, which these days are largely focused on the Common Core State Standards for mathematics.

A particularly popular straw man – more precisely, a "straw teacher" (a term that nicely gets us out of gender issues) – is a math teacher who spends class time exclusively discussing mathematics concepts (whatever that means) and pays no attention to helping the students master any procedures.

I guess there may be such a teacher, somewhere, but I have to confess I have yet to meet one. Ditto for the straw teacher who says getting the right answer (if there is one) is not important. Teachers just don't do either of those.

My colleagues who work in classroom teacher preparation do tell me that many math teachers do little else than drill on procedures (in some cases because they never set out to teach math, and don't really understand the concepts themselves), but in my walk of life I never meet them. I see the ones who became math teachers because they love mathematics and want to teach, and attend mathematics teacher conferences to exchange ideas and to learn more – which is where I meet them.

Anyone who has a working knowledge of (1) what mathematics (really) is and (2) how the brain works knows that learning math in a useful way requires both mastery of a set of basic procedures and conceptual understanding of the mathematical notions those procedures are built on.

In practical terms, you need to master basic procedures in order to develop conceptual understanding, and you need conceptual understanding in order to avoid any procedural mastery being brittle and short-lived.

So good math teaching involves both. And, for the record (yet again), both are called for in the CCSS.

Absent the CC connection, I've written about this issue on a number of occasions before in this column. For instance:

March 2006: How do we learn math?
September 2007: What is conceptual understanding?

Both articles were written long before the Common Core was developed. They were also written when I was just starting to become more actively involved in K-12 education issues. (And before I inadvertently ignited the "repeated addition" firestorm in the summer of 2008.) But having just re-read them for the first time in many years, I still stand by what I wrote. So I won't repeat myself here.