Gaps and Redundancies

Sun, 16 Mar 2008 13:50:53 +0000

There is some irony to be found in the title of Tamar Levin's excellent article in Friday's edition of The New York Times, "Report Urges Changes in Teaching Math." To do anything other than what the report recommends would hardly qualify as teaching math. Here's the crux of the matter:

Closely tracking an influential 2006 report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the panel recommended that math curriculum should include fewer topics, spending enough time to make sure each is learned in enough depth that it need not be revisited in later grades. That is the approach used in most top-performing nations, and since the 2006 report, many states have been revising their standards to cover fewer topics in greater depth.
It was the frequent revisiting of earlier topics in later grades, with little increase in the sophistication of the approach, that drove me crazy in primary and secondary school. And it wasn't just math--it was virtually every subject. And despite this revisiting in later grades, students' achievements lag those in other countries. So much redundancy in instruction, and yet so many gaps in knowledge. That's strong evidence of the possibility of making gains in outcomes without additional resources.

There is more of interest in the article, particularly in this passage:
After hearing testimony and comments from hundreds of organizations and individuals, and sifting through a broad array of 16,000 research publications, the panelists shaped their report around recent research on how children learn.

For example, the report found it is important for students to master their basic math facts well enough that their recall becomes automatic, stored in their long-term memory, leaving room in their working memory to take in new math processes.

“For all content areas, practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills — the fast, accurate and effortless processing of content information — which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving,” the report said.

Dr. Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the panel “buys the notion from cognitive science that kids have to know the facts.”

We needed cognitive science to figure that out? There was some competing notion, masquerading as an educational philosophy, that suggested that kids did not have to know the facts? The recommended approach all sounds very familiar, if not widely utilized.

Read the whole thing.

Cross-posted at Vox Baby.