Moving from fear to fascination

Umamaheswari Subramanian

As a mathematics teacher and educator, I have always enjoyed the privileges I have earned and wondered why mathematics continues to be a phobia amongst the common public. While there are several commonalities in how people in India and the United States view mathematics, there are some remarkable differences in the way mathematics is taught in these two countries. I have taught mathematics at all levels for more than a decade in India and for nearly two decades in an urban city in the United States. In this article, I share some experiences that transformed my classroom into a more robust one with students exploring and engaging in the learning process.

The math classroom
As a school student and as a high school teacher in India, I was accustomed to the teacher giving all the information and the students passively listening and simply imitating the teacher in solving problems. There was never a discussion in the class amongst students and rarely did students ask questions. The scenario changed when I started teaching in a public school in the US. I had to make several changes to my teaching style to succeed in my new surroundings. High school students in the US have the freedom and courage to speak their mind about the class and my students demanded that the class be more engaging. They wanted to know why they should learn maths and I began to start my classes talking about a real world problem that was directly or indirectly related to the math concept in their lesson. This triggered my students’ desire to participate in the learning process.

As a new teacher in the US, I realized that I had to give my students a bait to draw them into learning the topic for the day. I began using short incomplete video clips followed by classroom discussions as part of my teaching routine. This is something I learnt from Dan Meyer (a math teacher) and his Three Act Tasks, which are interactive lessons that start with a video and can engage even the most unmotivated because of the various entry levels and the sense of achievement students derive by participating. Currently, the Three Act Tasks and its various modifications are widely used to engage students in math classrooms.

Gradual release of responsibilities
During the beginning of the 21st century, schools in the US introduced the Gradual Release of Responsibility as an instructional framework to transform students from being merely passive listeners to becoming active participants in their learning journey. Here, the teacher is no longer the sole authority in the classroom; the students take the ropes of learning in their own hands and the teacher is more of an observer.

Adapting to my new responsibilities as a teacher, I started assigning collaborative assignments to my students. In this process I also had to learn the strengths of each student so that I could make flexible groups where every student could contribute. I also had to provide scaffolds to those groups I knew would need more support.

Creativity in mathematics
What has creativity got to do with mathematics? Mathematics in the Indian classrooms is always taught as a study of formulas and their direct application. Teachers in the US do things a little differently. They assess their students’ conceptual knowledge using mathematical projects and games. BINGO and Jeopardy are often used in the math classroom for review before an assessment.

Research indicates that students learn and retain concepts when the learning concepts are relevant to them. My fellow math teachers and I created a project to help students understand the concept of a ‘function’, its domain and range and the key characteristics of the graph using their real-life experiences. X represented the age of the student and f(x) represented the student’s level of happiness expressed as a number from 1 to 10, with 1 representing the unhappiest year and 10 representing a great year. (For example, when I was 9 years of age, I was made class president and all my teachers loved me. This was my best year and I will give it a score of 10. The next year, I lost my grandmother and I was very sad and so will give it a 2). Students were happy to share their life experiences in the form of a function and could describe intervals of increase/decrease and other characteristics of their function. Another project that I particularly enjoyed, required students to design a logo using various families of functions in a restricted domain and draw the same on a graphing calculator.

Teacher certification and renewal
Anyone wanting to teach in any school in the US is required to have a license from the state. The requirements are different for different states, but all involve completing a teacher education program after finishing a Bachelor’s degree and taking an assessment. The certification process is meant to ensure that teachers meet certain standards in the areas of pedagogy and the subject area they plan to teach in addition to clearing a background check.

An interesting and noteworthy fact is that the certification is valid only for a period of three to five years and one must keep renewing the certificate in order to continue teaching. Teachers are also required to complete certain hours of professional learning related to their subject and pedagogy through workshops, seminars and conferences to renew their certification. This ensures that teachers are constantly updating their knowledge with the latest information in not only pedagogy, but also technology and their subject area. Also, there are several teacher conferences, workshops conducted by various colleges of education and universities throughout the year and during summer. These conferences allow practicing teachers to share best practices, innovations in their own classrooms, technology aided assignments, games and projects related to concepts for each grade level; at the same time, teachers also gain confidence and feel appreciated when sharing their best practices with their peers from other parts of the country. Some universities also provide opportunities for teachers (with a stipend) to come and work in their research department as a way of learning about the latest research in the various fields of science.

Educational publications, coaching and tutoring institutes and other industrial organizations in India will have to come forward to hold teacher conferences for the professional development of teachers. Educational trusts and institutions running schools should also conduct research on teaching practices and student learning and should encourage their teachers to share their best practices in order to learn from one another.

Gifted and talented
Have you had students in your class who always have the answers to everything you ask even before you teach the lesson? In India, such students can become teachers’ assistants helping the teacher in different ways. What do the students gain by being the teacher’s assistant? In some rare cases, if the teacher has had exposure to different mathematical competitions, he/she may encourage the student to compete as well. In the US, however, law mandates that gifted and talented students be identified based on teacher/parent recommendations by using multiple criteria (mental ability, achievement, creativity, and motivation). Students thus identified will attend the Gifted and Talented program, where students may be placed in an honours class that follows a differentiated rigorous curriculum or in an accelerated curriculum completing two years of work in one year thus allowing the gifted students to move ahead of their peers.

At the high school level, the gifted students can complete all their coursework much earlier when they are in their 11th or 12th grade and can take a few college level classes in school (advanced placement classes offered by the college board) and obtain college credit or they can be enrolled in college while still being a senior in high school. I am looking forward to the days when Indian teachers will also start nurturing gifted and talented students and providing them with opportunities to accelerate their learning.

Mathematics continues to be a gatekeeper to higher education everywhere and even today we have high school students who either hate or fear math. This is true even amongst students in the United States in spite of the ever changing research-based teaching practices there. Mathematics teachers and educators everywhere have a huge role to play to make mathematics a learner friendly subject and to remove math phobia in learners. This starts with teachers making changes in the classroom; shift from teaching math as a set of rules and formulas to creating meaningful, relevant and challenging learning experiences for students. The education system has a more important role in terms of designing the curriculum, training teachers, conducting research on students’ learning; but all this will only start with teachers demanding the same from the system.

The author is a passionate educator currently serving in a public school in the US. She believes that anyone can learn and excel in mathematics and that educators have the responsibility to tap students’ curiosity to facilitate learning mathematics with joy. She can be reached at [email protected].

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