On sequestering math

I struggle with how “special” we treat math in schools. It’s not uncommon for math teachers and departments to run professional development apart from all other subjects. Or use different classroom norms. Or instruct entirely differently. Or blog or tweet exclusively about math. Math teachers have their own software, their own language, different and separate from the rest of the school.

The entire design of New Tech Network schools, for whom I work as a Math and School Development Coach, purports that schools work best when staff practices, protocols, norms, and buy-in are all aligned. For example, entire staffs are committed to the same norms, the same school culture, and the same protocols. So I’m often biased toward thinking about how kids are experiencing school, rather than just math.

Still, even with that alleged common understanding, I’ve heard so many times from non-math teachers, “oh, that’s the math department, we just let them do their own thing.” Or, from math teachers, “oh, this is math, we do it differently in here.

It’s also quite rational behavior for teachers. If I have limited time for planning and reflection (if any), I’m not going to use it to explain what we’re going over to teachers who won’t give precise feedback. And If I’m employing instructional software as my teaching tool, my peers have literally nothing to offer me.

Is this OK? Is this best for a student’s schooling experience?

I often wonder how are students experiencing and witnessing this. Do they see the disconnect between math departments and the rest of the staff, like the way children intuit when parents aren’t getting along? Do they experience firsthand the pedagogical isolation of a math class compared to the (more often) aligned approaches of other subjects?

It makes me wonder if there’s an upper limit to how great a school – or even a math department – can be if they’re so often sequestered from the rest of the staff.

I worry sometimes that perhaps a great folly of all these rich math resources online is that they can allow math teachers to remove themselves from school norms and ways of being (editor’s note: I want to emphasize the word “can” here, not that it does, but that they can. Are we cool, now? Cool.) Great tasks and lessons are the technical solutions. A staff coming together to determine how to best support students is an adaptive one. (For more an the technical vs. adaptive terminology, head over here.)

So how can math teachers engage productively with the rest of the staff?

At the most successful schools I work with, there are a few common threads, which I wrote about at the beginning of the school year. I would like to highlight/reiterate the notion of, as a staff or grade-level department, examining samples of student work across subject areas. In addition, consider intentionally inviting peers into your classroom. Facilitating a really cool task sometime in the next couple weeks? Send an invitation and/or record yourself so others can see what you’re doing, and perhaps by proxy, get oriented to what fun math can actually be! Follow it up by inviting yourself in to a non-math classroom to observe and learn.

To be sure, the discipline of math is peculiar, to the point of being existential. There are certain teaching moves that are special to the discipline. There are attitudes within students unique to the subject developed over time that we must examine and treat. And to be fair, every subject has their own discipline-specific ideas and norms. Math classrooms just seem to take it to the extreme in terms of looking different.

This is the tension I find myself in: just how different is math as a subject? When is it appropriate and beneficial to think about math-specific teaching strategies vs. general strategies? To what degree does math’s “specialness” hinder or help the overall goal of a school where students and adults feel connected and successful?

I’m not sure I have any concrete answers to these questions, but I do know a couple things: that teaching math is enhanced by leaning upon fellow awesome math teachers and their lessons AND students experience school best when overall teaching practices and norms are aligned.

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8 Responses to On sequestering math

  1. Gretchen Eastman says:

    In my district, we are working to develop our professional learning communities around common formative assessments. That has forced us to look at where the commonalities are among our various disciplines. Interestingly, the mathematical practices are similar to the scientific ones and those all have some similarities to literacy standards, especially in the area of writing. When we are forced to come together, we start to see the connections among the disciplines.
    I am not very familiar with how Plato, Socrates, and all the early Greek scholars studied math, science, philosophy, and such, but it does strike me what I have studied and learned about the Greeks is that they studied all the subjects more holistically than how we educate students now in the typical school. If we “did school” more like the ancient Greeks, I do think we’d probably do more cross-curricular units of study than we do now.
    I am certified to teach both math and ELA, so I have always thought about how to bring math and ELA together. It just “made sense” for my own brain and I thought it sometimes helped my students to bring those two disciplines together. I think showing how math connects to social studies, science, art, music, and even ELA just makes sense. For me, I didn’t really appreciate the math until I saw it in the context of those other areas. That is when it started to come alive for me.

    • Geoff says:

      Wow. Good to have someone with first-hand expertise.

      One of my favorite courses I’ve ever been a witness too was a combined math and english Senior Capstone course in which students designed a sort of “passion project” and analyzed it using (among other things) data and supporting literature. The student work that came out of that class was impeccable. And the teachers also had a great rapport and were able to play to one another’s strengths.

      That said, it certainly took some time for the two teachers to get comfortable with one another’s discipline. But in the end, the ELA teacher came to appreciate math as a subject and the math teacher became more in tune with ELA practices and her own teaching as well.

  2. John Berray says:

    Great post, Geoff! Peculiar is the word I’ve been using to describe the teaching of math as well. The more I learn about the norms of other disciplines, the more I realize how peculiar we are indeed. Some of my favorite intellectual friction comes from colleagues in other departments who make me think about how math class varies from other subjects.

    I’m reading George Couros’ new book, The Innovator’s Mindset. In it, he distinguishes between classroom teacher versus school teacher. The latter has a more empathetic view of the learner and her whole academic experience, while the former views the learner mostly through the eyes of the content, leaving her to piece together coherence for herself.

    • Geoff says:

      Interesting stuff, John. I’ll have to check out George’s book. I know I’ve learned a ton from non-math teachers as it relates to math. I’m thinking about things like writing mathematically, making concise arguments, developing questions, listening to students, etc. There’s a lot of learning out there for us to do beyond our own classroom!

  3. Tyler says:

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Geoff. I agree that, the ideal would be that more teachers are familiar with some of the practices in the math classroom and/or that the practices aligned more closely across departments. There are some inherent differences between subject matter, but, in general, many schools and teachers could do a better job of using similar approaches to help unify the students’ experiences.

    I would add one additional note, which is that non-math teachers can often use pretty negative language about the subject. This is something I wish/hope more schools would/will address. In particular, I hear TONS of teachers/students/parents declare themselves “not math people” or similar classifications. This is SO detrimental (see Jo Boaler or Carol Dweck’s writings) and would sound so out of place in other subjects. Can you imagine someone saying “I just don’t really read” or “I am just not someone who does writing.”?


    • Geoff says:

      That’s a good point re: reframing the negative attitudes around the subject. It often takes sustained messaging and often *doing* math with other teachers, real math.

      To that extent, I’ve had success facilitating small things like “Which one doesn’t belong?” (wodb.ca) or “Would you rather?” or Clothesline Math with non-math teachers to begin that conversation about the subject. Not always easy to do in a hectic calendar year, though.

  4. I might push this conversation one step farther, beyond just teacher peer-to-peer interactions. I would also invite your administrative/counseling teams into your classrooms as well. Often these folks don’t have a math background and they too need some exposure to be able to support math work from their seat at the table (whether that’s talking to students about scheduling, funding professional development, or even, yes, giving better feedback as your supervisor).

  5. gantalones says:

    2 Thoughts:

    1) This is a dilemma that also faces foreign language teachers too. Both Math and FL are rather skill oriented subjects that rely heavily on sequence, aren’t they? I think it reasonable to see if people have found resolution to the issue as FL teachers, perhaps as a guide to resolving the integration issue with math.

    2) I am reminded of my students in physics classes who would frequently come to me with math skills, but felt confounded when faced with the need to apply those math skills to physical situations/scenarios/problems. The existence of that mismatch certainly highlights your point. I also noticed that after a semester, students seemed to get the knack of it, and therein might land one way to address this issue. Context-driven mathematics, where you start with the story problems first, allows for a teaching/learning milieu that is closer to other classes, and helps math teachers understand the need for teaching reading and writing, even in their classes. It is not a new hypothesis to you, obviously; but the issue you describe does provide yet another rationale for the important of context-oriented math.

    Lastly, Tyler is definitely onto something. We don’t ask other teachers to bring in numeracy to their work, and we tolerate their recalcitrance about math. I would agree that it is a two-way street that needs maintenance on both sides of the road.

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