How to teach math

Early this month the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will release the results of the 2015 round of testing of 15-year-olds from 72 countries on their science, reading and mathematics skills. The test is administered every 3 years by PISA. In previous years, students in the USA have scored poorly on some of these tests, and particularly in math, ranking 36 of 65 countries1.

In addition to test scores, PISA collects data on student learning styles. The USA reported a preference for memorization, where a large percentage of students repeat problems until they memorize them, and their solutions, perfectly. This reflects a common approach to teaching math that rewards committing procedural steps to memory, as opposed to fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of math concepts and how to apply them. The latter can be found in more successful teaching programs—like the one at Waldorf School of Baltimore—that are based on inquiry-based learning, and on students’ self-evaluation of their understanding of mathematical formulas and theories.

An important tool employed by successful math teaching programs is the use of visual approaches to understand math concepts. This is often referred to as S.T.E.A.M., where the Arts are incorporated into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Waldorf Education teachers make extensive use of drawing, graphing, and construction of three dimensional objects to achieve this visually based learning. Among other advantages, visual learning is thought to promote the development of the approximate number system that permits estimation and rough calculation of quantities without symbols. This cognitive system is thought to promote the human capacity for symbolic math. Studies show that training in this system improves math proficiency. This is further supported by brain imaging studies that suggest that while solving more complex math problems, there is increased communication between brain regions in the left hemisphere that are activated during simple arithmetic tasks, and those in the right hemisphere that are involved in quantity processing.

Stanford University established, in 2014, a center, YouCubed, whose mission is to communicate math teaching practices that are based on evidence from neuroscience and psychology research. Among other resources, their website has fascinating tutorials, such as this one on the concept of number sense.

(This post was inspired by a Scientific American article).

  1. Only 65 countries were tested in previous years. 
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