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Linda M. Gojak on youth and math

Linda M. Gojak is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, http://www.nctm.org.

Q: How would you sum up math knowledge among kids in North America today?

A: International studies show that we’re not competitive with the top countries in the world, but you have to be careful when you look at international comparisons, because we strive to educate all our children, while other countries that competitively do well can be much more selective. For example in China, at the eighth-grade level kids are given a high-stakes test and only a select number get to go on to high school; others go to vocational schools or don’t go on to school at all.

Q: What major factors contribute to kids not doing so well?

A: That’s a really hard one. Urban districts have a higher dropout rate than they ought to. Some of that has to do with the foundation kids have before they reach their teens, as well as socio-economic factors.

Q: What are your suggestions for helping to turn it around?

A: I think that the educational system has to look at how we educate students, and how to give them advantages before they even start school. I also think we have to look at how mathematics in particular is being taught. NCTM has focused on that the last several years, particularly at the ninth-grade-and-up level – giving kids opportunities to reason and make sense of the mathematics. Traditionally, high school courses haven’t done that. We also need to make sure that teachers have professional development opportunities and the latest research on how kids learn.

Q: What are the long-term implications if we don’t improve math literacy?

A: To be quite honest, it will be trouble. I don’t think that every student has to go to college, but we want kids to be mathematically and quantitatively literate in whatever career they enter. If they aren’t, the United States will continue to ship jobs overseas. We need to make sure we have an educated group of students ready to enter the workforce after high school, ready to enter college and then the workforce after college. And if they are not mathematically literate, they are not going to be ready to do that.

Q: What about the link between reading and math literacy?

A: There’s a link but not a major one; it’s not as direct a connection as some people may think. The bigger issue is kids entering a math class in middle or high school without the foundation in math required.
I was working in a school some years ago where most kids could not read, write or speak English, and neither the teacher nor I could speak their language. But when we were doing mathematics, the symbols on the board made sense to them. They were able to do the math necessary without English. So there’s an aspect of mathematics that is an international language – as long as the kids have had the necessary foundation in earlier grades.

Q: Is online learning particularly suited to math and science learning?

A: To me, both math and science education are opportunities to communicate and discuss and reason with others. There are a lot of good materials online that can help enhance their math abilities, but it’s really important for kids to have an opportunity to share their thinking in real time with one another. Online learning does not always give them that opportunity. On the other hand, we have to be really careful not to totally dismiss the ways that technology can enhance kids’ learning.

Q: Is online math and science learning more suitable for self-motivated than struggling kids?

A: I have worked with underachieving kids as well as gifted kids, and there is something to be said for truly self-motivated kids learning at their own pace. There is also something to be said for the opportunity to interact with others. Online, kids can be taught procedures and how to jump through those hoops, but it’s a rare online program that will really help them develop that deeper understanding. If kids don’t have that opportunity to develop deep understanding, and to do rich mathematical tasks in the classroom, it changes the equation. Given a choice between the two experiences, I’d go for the chance to work with a real live teacher in the room, even for bright kids.

Q: What can parents do to help their children engage with math?

A: Speaking as a teacher with twenty-eight years in the classroom, as well as my current NCTM position, I’d like to point out that today’s curriculum and standards are much deeper than thirty years ago. This presents a challenge given that math instruction is often limited to forty-five to sixty minutes a day.
So first, let kids know that mathematics is very important. Oftentimes, kids come to school and say, “Well, my mom said she wasn’t very good at math either.” Or, “My parents said that math isn’t important.” Instead, encourage your children’s math work, and acknowledge that mathematics is every bit as important as reading and writing. It really is a critical factor in a child’s future options.
Second, talk to the teacher. If your child is struggling, work with the teacher to provide opportunities so your child can do better in math. Sometimes parents think that they’re the teacher when their kid gets home. But math education looks different today than when parents were in school, so it’s more important to communicate with the teacher than to become the at-home teacher.
Third, our children are very overbooked these days. They come home from school while both parents are working, or they come home and have to go to soccer or baseball or music practice. It’s real important for parents to realize that they need to set up a place for kids to do homework – a quiet place, and a time when the television and maybe computer are turned off. That homework is an important part of reinforcing what the kids learned in school that day.

Q: Is math competency more important today than it was in previous generations?

A: Absolutely. Career options aside, in today’s economy, society and political environment – and given the amount of media to which kids have access – we need to know when we’re reading or hearing legitimate information. We need to be able to look at the numbers and say, “This just doesn’t make sense.” There is a wonderful book called How to Lie with Statistics. If there are a lot of people lying with statistics, we’re going to be a very misinformed population unless we develop that ability to reason and see through the lies.
Also, we need a quantitatively literate citizenship. For example, there are many adults who don’t realize that it’s dangerous to overextend yourself credit-wise. Across the board, from everyday life to career options, mathematics has become absolutely critical.

Q: Any observations on the math gender-gap?

A: In elementary school, boys and girls are pretty much on a level playing field. In middle school, although some of my best students are girls, we do see boys tend to be more motivated. We need to level that for both genders, letting students know it is cool to be good at mathematics! For example, I attended a national math competition for middle school kids. Less than ten percent of the kids competing were female. Sometimes we forget that there is a gender gap and it is alive and thriving. We have to do better in general to meet the needs of kids who struggle in mathematics.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

A: I recall students who struggled in math yet were among the best logical thinkers. Kids who struggle with computation often think they aren’t very good in math. I remember a fifth-grade girl in particular whose parents came in to a teacher conference and told me how their daughter used to hide under her desk at math time because she felt so incompetent. Yet when she had the opportunity to understand the mathematics through using materials, sharing her thinking and solving good problems, she turned out to be one of the brightest students I ever had. Mathematical experiences at this age can have a really great impact on kids and how they look at it for the rest of their lives.

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