The math classroom can be a foreboding place, filled with complicated equations and concepts that require their own language to decipher. And most math students at some point in their education find themselves wondering, “How will I apply this to real life?”
That is just the question that Eric Robinson, a professor of mathematics at Ithaca College, found himself asking. What started as a private question almost 20 years ago has developed into a full-time passion. Eric and his wife, Margaret Robinson, an assistant professor in both mathematics and education, are on the forefront of math education reform in this country.
These days in many public schools, math students are split up into two or more levels according to their ability. The intent is to be able to cater to the needs of students more precisely. For those students tracked in lower-level-classes, however, “the outcome was that students never got to have the opportunities the other kids did,” says Eric. “Once they split, they were on separate tracks.”
Photo courtesy of Professors Eric and Margaret Robinson
One of the goals of Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students, or COMPASS, is to create a teaching system that is fair to all math students, says Eric. Since 1997 he has been the director of COMPASS, a program started through a National Science Foundation grant that he applied for. COMPASS challenges certain assumptions in math education and explores why students should study math. The Robinsons want to find out what teachers want their students to know, and to determine what value there is in just teaching lessons straight from a textbook.
While the Robinsons have been involved with efforts to reform both course content and teaching methods in math instruction since 1992, this past summer an Ithaca alumna suggested a way to apply their work to a new area. Faith Muirhead ’00, a program director for the Math and Science Partnership in New York City, contacted her former math teacher Margaret Robinson and proposed they try mixing students of different math abilities together in one classroom.
Photo courtesy of Eric and Margaret Robinson
Two sixth-grade math teachers in the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) agreed to work with the Robinsons, Muirhead, and a number of volunteer middle school students this past summer to develop the new method of instruction, called differentiated instruction. What emerged was a whole different approach to teaching.
“The teacher isn’t standing up in front of the classroom lecturing,” Margaret explains. Instead, instruction moves toward a format where students with different styles of learning can engage with mathematics. To explore the concept of equality, these students were given this problem: A zookeeper wants to weigh all his animals, but he only has a balance scale and bags of feed. How many bags of feed are equal to one lion? Two lions? Students experimented, adding and subtracting animals and feed bags while getting the chance to think about the math properties of ratios, addition, and integers. There is no solution to the problem, no final answer. Students can go as far as they want. In fact, Eric observed that the students “started acting hungry for more information.” They brought up their own questions and were more actively engaged in the class.
This approach means a whole lot more for the Robinsons than developing new lesson plans. Teachers were asked what they expected students to learn from the lesson, and then evaluated the effectiveness of the lesson: How did students demonstrate understanding? What did students still need to learn? What is the next step to address these needs?
At the end of the summer workshop, Kim Fontana, director of staff development and research for ICSD, told the Robinsons, “I never would have believed it could be done.” Fontana found the program successful enough that she agreed to pilot two sixth-grade classes using differentiated instruction.
The program with ICSD is only the latest work the Robinsons have been doing. In an era of increased testing, the Robinsons push for more critical-thinking skills. The how of knowing is as important as knowing the material itself. As Eric explains, the approach of COMPASS, differentiated learning, and other similar projects involves a reorientation of goals. “Students should be able to develop an equation from a context and explain what the solution to that equation means,” says Eric.
The Robinsons believe that math can be a tool for dealing with the issues that people must confront in everyday life. Whether that tool can create an array for the distribution of cell phone towers, or a system to map and interpret climate change data, math is evolving to meet a changing environment.
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