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How We Got Teachers to Love Math—And Improved Our Math Scores

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This post is by Jeff Heyck-Williams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Two Rivers Public Charter School, Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, I left an interview with an elementary school candidate deeply concerned. She was looking to work with us at Two Rivers, a Preschool - 8th Grade urban public charter school in Washington, D.C. In many ways she was the perfect candidate. She had skills in literacy instruction and classroom management. She was philosophically aligned with our EL Education model and its mission to help all kids become deeper learners through hands-on project based learning. Most importantly she was open to deepening her practice. Except in one area. When asked about math instruction, she said, "I'm not really a math person." 

EL Picture.jpg

Photo Credit: Andrea Roberson

From that one comment, I realized she was the face of a pervasive fixed mindset around math that goes well beyond this one teacher. The I-can't-do-math mindset is epidemic in the educational community and in our society. As a school, we had wholeheartedly embraced the growth mindset research by Carol Dweck. But math was different. In math, it was still OK in our community to express a fixed mindset that defines people as either a math person or not a math person. And our math scores continued to lag stubbornly behind our reading scores year after year on our state standardized assessment. I shouldn't have been surprised. Many of our teachers avoided conversations about math lessons. It was the one subject for which they wanted a textbook and scripted lessons.Their teaching often suffered from a shallow understanding of the mathematics they were teaching. There is no blame in this. As Deborah Loewenberg Ball wrote in Mathematics for the 21st Century, "teachers—like all other adults in this country—are graduates of the system we seek to improve." Our teachers had predominantly been educated in schools that reinforced a fixed mindset about math. In addition, they were expected to learn mathematics as a series of rote skills with no push for deeper learning or understanding..

Something needed to be done, and it was bigger than what a series of professional development workshops focusing on shifts in instruction or curriculum could provide. Because we cared about deeper learning in math for all students, we realized that just changing the how and what of math instruction was insufficient. We also had to change our beliefs and feelings about math.This kind of change meant getting teachers—all teachers—to love math.

Shifting Our Math Culture

In August of 2010, we started by listening deeply to our teachers' math stories. We recognized that if we didn't start with their learning first, we would never be able to approach the kinds of mindset shifts necessary to impact the learning of students. Teachers—even the art teacher and the pre-school teacher—wrote their math stories, sharing their deepest feelings about math and the people and experiences that led them to those beliefs. Over 65% of the stories that teachers told were negative. When they were students, our teachers had been given messages like "girls aren't good at math," "it is OK if you don't get this, you won't need it once you get out of school anyway," and "math is either something you get, or you don't get." These messages were pervasive and came from teachers with an affinity towards math as well as teachers who couldn't stand math. By acknowledging these messages, we brought them to the surface and made teachers aware of the messages that they were explicitly and too often implicitly sending to kids about math.

For the rest of the year, we all learned math. I facilitated eight sessions interspersed throughout the year. Each session focused on a particular strand of mathematics and provided teachers with differing levels of problem-based tasks to explore the underlying concepts of number sense, operations, algebra, and geometry. Teachers dove into math concepts not only to learn how to teach them, but also to understand as students what deeper learning feels like.

Culminating that year of exploring math as a faculty, we set some expectations for math at our school based on teachers' insights about our math culture. We still hold these expectations today: First, we understand that we are all part of our students' and their families' math stories now. Second, we have a responsibility to address our own fixed mindsets about math so that we can foster a growth mindset in our students.

Deeper Learning through Problem-Based Tasks in Math

Only after a year of exploring our math stories were we ready to tackle the changes to our curriculum and instruction. The biggest change is that we adopted a model of inquiry-based math lessons inspired by EL Education's Workshop Model 2.0 and Jon Van de Walle, Lou Ann Lovin, Karen Karp, and Jennifer Bay-Williams' series of Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics books. The lesson structure that we call a problem-based task is designed to provide students with opportunities to grapple with challenging math problems and construct their own understanding. You can see an example of this approach in the classroom in the following video:

Learning and Loving Math: A Problem-Based Approach from Two Rivers Public Charter School on Vimeo.

Video credit: Pendragon Productions

For students, problem-based tasks require the cultivation of a growth mindset as they persevere over false starts and mistakes to deepen their understanding of the math. For teachers, these lessons require a deep dive into their mathematics curriculum and understanding the math concepts they need to teach at a level deeper than algorithms and formulas. Planning for these lessons, takes more time and effort on the front end. However, with a culture that supports inquiry and a love of math, our teachers are much more ready to dive in and the results are rewarding

Shifting the culture of a school is never easy. Shifting the culture of math at a school in a broader society  that harbors negative views and a fixed mindset towards mathematics requires a concerted and conscientious effort. But, tackling our challenge courageously and persevering has paid off. We now regularly outperform the state on state assessments both outright and among each of our subgroups in mathematics. We now offer professional development and resources to teachers around the DC area who want to change their own math culture. And, Just as importantly, we are growing more mathematicians!  Our teachers, our students, and our parents have a new math story, one that begins with the belief: "even if I don't get math at first, even when math is hard, I know I can learn it if I work hard."       

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