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As test scores plummet, the science of math movement may be gathering steam

By Karen D'Souza


As students struggle with deep learning loss in mathematics, some educators are pushing for a return to a more structured teaching strategy dubbed the “science of math,” as the 74 reported.


A companion to the better-known “science of reading” movement, a push that has ushered in enormous change in how that subject is taught, the “science of math” also calls for a more orderly, explicit approach to classroom instruction.


Sarah Powell, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the movement’s most vocal proponents, said the circuitous discovery-led path to learning popularized in recent years might “sound sexy” but doesn’t help kids master the skills they need to succeed — at least not in math.


“Some teachers are helping to set students up for success,” she said, “while others are not,” as the 74 reported.“We don’t want to waste students’ time.”


Meanwhile, critics call the movement poorly researched, saying it resurrects ineffective techniques that should have been abandoned years ago. They say, too, that it won’t counter the current mathematics crisis, evidenced by a spiral of low test results nationwide.


Powell, who works in the department of special education, said she observed a fourth-grade teacher last school year who instructed her students, at the start of class, to find a partner and begin to solve a mathematical problem right away, with no prior instruction.


“That can be a really intimidating strategy for a lot of students, especially if they haven’t worked on a multistep word problem before,” Powell said. “If you put an adult in that situation, they would be really, really annoyed. And that we put students in that situation is quite unfair, particularly when they have weak or sometimes nonexistent foundations in math.


Teachers should explain the problem first and arm students with some of the vocabulary they will need to solve it. A lesson on perimeter shouldn’t start with students staring at a figure on a sheet of paper, asking themselves where the perimeter might be found, she said, but with a teacher providing a definition of the term, in this case, the distance around the outside of a shape.


“We would like to see teachers go over vocabulary that’s going to be important or say, ‘Let’s do a problem together,’” she said. “Be more systematic with that than open-ended because it could be that when you do allow students to explore, you might have some students engaging in no exploration … or maybe incorrect exploration.”

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