Teachers Tackle Difficult Math

 
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Once a month a group of mathematics teachers in Summit County gather after school to tackle complex mathematical problems. None are easy. Topics address Sudoku patterns and possibilities; Tessellations: patterns, repeating patterns and rules; and combinations, patterns, and complex matrices. The tasks are not meant to be connected to the standards; are “deep enough” to demand hours, days, or even longer to work through variations and extensions; and do not have one right answer. Working through the challenges, teachers gain confidence in their problem-solving abilities and acquire a greater understanding of some very complex mathematics.

These teachers, primarily middle school level, are participating in a newly-created Math Teachers’ Circle (MTC), a professional learning community of teachers and mathematicians, formed by Summit Education Initiative (SEI) with a grant from the Jennings Foundation. This group is associated with a national network of MTCs, of which there are 125 established throughout the country. Based on practices founded at the American Institute of Mathematics, Math Teachers’ Circles have been proven to improve teacher confidence in their own mathematical skills leading to positive changes in math teaching methods.      

SEI set out to establish the intra-district MTC made up of mathematicians and education professionals in Summit County. Educators were invited to attend eight monthly afternoon sessions led by mathematicians and physicists from SEI, The University of Akron, and Stow-Munroe Falls schools. Participants came from Akron, Nordonia, Cuyahoga Falls, Tallmadge, Stow-Munroe Falls, Manchester, Green, and Streetsboro.

“If we want to encourage an inquiry-based approach to mathematics that requires deep learning in students, then might it not be a good approach to have teachers themselves engage in deep learning?”

“A Math Teachers’ Circle is designed to put teachers back in the seat of being a student,” says Matthew Deevers, Senior Research Associate, SEI, explaining that part of the intent is to let teachers experience what it is like to grapple with challenging problems so that they can better understand the struggles of their students. “It’s a place where once a month, adults get together and feel safe to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to this problem’ and then try to come up with solutions together.”

Dr. Deevers emphasizes that the problem-solving sessions are not designed to help teachers teach the content standards. There are lots of organizations, he remarks, that do that already. “This is about letting the teachers themselves really wrestle with complex mathematical concepts. If we want to encourage an inquiry-based approach to mathematics that requires deep learning in students, then might it not be a good approach to have teachers themselves engage in deep learning? 

“This is a relatively new concept,” he continues. “The lessons are very open-ended. There are evenings when we don’t get through the whole concept because that is what the teachers want. If you are approaching a really complex math problem and you don’t already know the answers, it takes awhile to solve.” After working through the problems, teachers have the ability to scale the concepts they’ve learned to their own classroom level.

Dr. Deevers hopes those who participated in the program gained a deeper knowledge of complex mathematics and a greater appreciation for what their own students experience when learning middle school math.

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“These teachers are experts at how to teach their grade level, but that doesn’t mean that they’re experts at all mathematical concepts,” he explains. “When you are an expert at delivering your content, you can make it seem like it’s easy. But when you sit here once a month you remember that it’s never easy.

“These teachers are coming to realize that if they can structure learning experiences for their students that require them to struggle through the issues, to communicate with each other, and to persist through the challenges, it will ultimately be more meaningful to them.”