Math is More Than Basic Skills

This article came across my twitter feed today and I’ve read it several times now. The basic gist is that first graders do better in math when they are taught in more traditional ways, textbooks and worksheets and teacher-directed lessons, rather than group work or math games. 

The question that was never addressed to my satisfaction is how that was determined. In the long article, here was the only part that had anything to do with how students’ math achievement was judged:

For their study, the researchers analyzed survey responses from 3,635 teachers and data from a subsample of 13,833 children in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, a nationally representative data set maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

I assume the survey responses were used to determine the types of instruction teachers were using. As to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – this was never explained more than it is here. If you are curious to know more, there is information here. I’ve followed some links there and I’m still not really clear on how these assessments were done. (I’m too lazy to follow through any more.)

Frequently assessments of achievement are made based on standardized tests. When that is the measure, I don’t find it at all surprising that traditional methods of instruction are more successful. They are more similar to the assessment.

Every year we give our kiddos a twenty question standardized test in math in my school district. This year I had several students do poorly who are very knowledgeable and capable in math. Language was a factor for some kids. They try to reason through a wordy problem and get lost as to what they need to do. Changing the wording can change their answer completely. I don’t mean dumbing things down in any way – I simply mean that language is tricky and I haven’t found a way to ensure that second-language learners have time to truly take in all the ways we say things in English. Other kids got distracted or were uninterested in the test. I get that. I wasn’t too interested myself.

I am not trying to suggest that traditional methods of math instruction are not useful. There are skills children need to have at their fingertips. However, defining math only by those skills is doing it, and our students, a great disservice. They need to be able to use those skills in meaningful ways, often with other people. They have to learn that somewhere too.


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