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"I'm lost" and other promising adventures | WE THE CURIOUS vol.1 no.25

"I'm lost" and other promising adventures | WE THE CURIOUS vol.1 no.25

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Published by Mackenzie Hawkins
Learning to think in new ways -- to see new relationships between mathematical ideas -- is not a race to the one right answer.
Learning to think in new ways -- to see new relationships between mathematical ideas -- is not a race to the one right answer.

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Published by: Mackenzie Hawkins on Aug 15, 2010
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01/15/2011

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 We the Curious
 vol.1 No.25
“I’m lost” and otherpromising adventures
 
When asked what “main thing” they wanted their students to learn,most eighth-grade math teachers in the U.S. described skills: “Theywanted the students to be able to perform a procedure, solve aparticular kind of problem, and so on.”  “On the same questionnaire, 73 percent of Japanese teachers said thatthe main thing they wanted their students to learn from the lesson wasto think about things in a new way, such as to see new relationshipsbetween mathematical ideas.” It’s hard to imagine how there could be such different views of math.After all, math is math; math transcends culture and language. Butthe authors of this study, which was part of The Third InternationalMathematics and Science Study, were “struck by the homogeneityof teaching methods within each culture, compared with the markeddifferences in methods across cultures.” Almost every aspect of matheducation in the U.S. was a consequence of the cultural perceptionthat math was a set of procedures, a set of skills. “If one believes that mathematics is mostly a set of procedures
and the goal is to help students become procient executors of 
the procedures, as many U.S. teachers seem to, then it would beunderstandable to believe that mathematics is learned best bymastering the material incrementally, piece by piece.” 
 
 “U.S. teachers appear to feel responsible for shaping the task intopieces that are manageable for most students, providing all theinformation needed to complete the task and assigning plenty of 
practice. Providing sufcient information means, in many cases,
demonstrating how to complete a task just like those assigned forpractice. Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs thatthey have not done their job.”  “U.S. teachers also take responsibility for keeping students engagedand attending. Given their beliefs about the nature of mathematics andhow it is learned, moment-by-moment attention is crucial. If studentsare watching the teacher demonstrate a procedure, they need toattend to each step. If their attention wanders, they will be lost when
they try to execute the procedure on their own.” 
In other words, because math is viewed as a set of procedures in theU.S., being lost is viewed as a failure. The most dreaded words in U.S.math classes -- for both student and teacher -- are “I’m lost” becauseprocedures start with a problem and end at a solution. They are about
getting from here to the right answer most efciently, so U.S. teachers
try to build a highway -- a superhighway -- with wide lanes, signposts,and guardrails. But to lose your way on a superhighway is to crash.In Japan, students struggle more but, ironically, there is less risk of failure. Learning to think in new ways -- to see new relationships

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