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Math 'Makes the World More Beautiful': A Professor's Advice on Teaching Math

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April is Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month—a time to celebrate teaching math, which can be, as experts say, a "hard sell." 

I spoke with Sean Nank, a professor of teaching and learning at the American College of Education and a high school math teacher, about the challenges facing math teachers today, strategies for bridging the gender gap in the classroom, and how mathematics is actually quite beautiful.

On teaching math for a deeper understanding:

Many math teachers are not clasically trained in mathematics, Nank said, but knowing how to understand the conceptual, versus the procedural, helps improve instruction. 

But it's challenging at first: "The more you ask why and how [something] works, the worse you do in mathematics," he said. "It takes more time in the beginning, but less time in the long run." 

If you teach your students just the procedures, "they're not going to understand it as well," Nank said. "You're going to have to re-teach. But if you spend the time at the conceptual, I think they'll understand the procedural faster."

On the benefits of getting a higher degree:

When math teachers have advanced degrees, they're often able to understand the conceptuals better, as well as the origins of math formulas and their importance, Nank said.

"I'm a firm believer in treating teachers the way you want them to teach their students—not only showing the concepts but also showing the pedagogical methods," he said. 

Nank said he noticed an improvement in his own instruction after earning his master's degree and Ph.D. in teaching mathematics. 

"Questions [students] would ask that I would answer procedurally, I could have answered conceptually," he said. "But if I didn't know how it relates conceptually, then I couldn't bring it to the classroom itself." 

On choosing math curriculum: 

Recent textbook reviews from EdReports.org found that a lot of curriculum is still not aligned with the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. Teachers have been gravitating toward open educational resources, like LearnZillion or EngageNY, which Education Week explores in its new report, "Navigating New Curriculum Choices."

"If teachers adopt anything, then we're making a mistake. What teaches need to do is adapt curriculum," Nank said. "The most enlightened mathematician in the world, they haven't been in your classroom with your students. They don't know them like you know them." 

On the gender divide in mathematics:

Nank's young daughter once came home from school crying, saying that she wasn't good at math. That jarred Nank into taking a hard look at his own teaching practice to make sure that he was reaching all students. 

Women are underrepresented in math majors and careers, and that divide starts early on. A recent longitudinal study found that kindergarten students started out more or less equal in math proficiency, but by 1st grade, a gender gap in math achievement had emerged, and that continued to expand through 2nd grade. Fifteen-year-old girls are also more likely to report feeling math anxiety than boys of the same age, according to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

"It's embracing less of what works with usually the boys in the classroom"—like memorization and competitive aspects of math—"and start looking at how girls learn mathematics as well," Nank said. Girls might respond well to learning the backgrounds of famous mathematicians, for example—What problems were they trying to solve? 

"Are we applying [math concepts] to things that are more masculine? Are we applying it to things that are more neutral or feminine?" he said.

For example, concepts like measurement are often taught by using the example of a football field. But Nank urges teachers to apply math concepts to a range of sports and hobbies. His daughter does dance, and after helping with a routine, he realized that ballet was comprised of so many mathematical concepts: three-quarters of a turn, angles, symmetry.

On the power and 'beauty' of mathematics: 

"You can use mathematics to appreciate the beauty of what's around us," Nank said. Understanding mathematical concepts gives you a different perspective of the world, he said—similar to how analyzing literature gives it a deeper meaning.

Look at a rose, Nank says. "You can appreciate the beauty of a rose, but if you know that the petals unfold in a Fibonacci sequence, that brings more beauty to a rose," he said. "Seeing things like that makes the world around us more beautiful." 


Looking for a STEM teaching job for the upcoming school year? Ed Week's TopSchoolJobs is hosting a free, online job fair on Thursday, April 27, from 11 am to 2 pm ET. You can chat one-on-one with recruiters across the nation (including urban and rural districts) looking to fill STEM teaching positions. Open teaching positions include: mathematics, algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, technology, earth science, and more. Register now.


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