Monday, August 22, 2011

Insights into Math Education: Dan Meyer

Dan Meyer
Before Dan Meyer headed to Stanford in 2010 to begin work on his doctorate in math education, he found himself dumped unceremoniously into a California high school math classroom filled with the kids that no one else wanted. Fresh out of college, his lack of seniority landed him high-risk, low-functioning students who had not responded to years of math instruction; (he jokes that he had to sell a product that no one wanted to people who had to buy it anyway).

Rather than thinking about what was wrong with his students, however, Meyer took a close look at the school textbooks and the curriculum in general and concluded that there was something fundamentally wrong with way math was being taught. Unfazed by this fairly major conclusion, he took action. Using technology, insight, and his considerable intellect, he treated his students to an innovative and effective math curriculum.

One of Meyer’s primary complaints with math instruction is that it so infrequently lines up with the kind of math students will encounter in the much-discussed “real world.” In a video presentation about this conclusion, Meyer displays a typical textbook problem and highlights the numbers in it that must be crunched to get the answer. Then he asks the audience how many times in their lives they had to solve a problem and found that exactly the right amount of information was at their fingertips. Over appreciative laughter, he observes that generally we have more than we need, or else too little, and that presenting math in the manner of the average textbook is not only disingenuous, it causes kids to do math passively without really processing the information. According to Meyer, to help kids develop the skills they need to truly understand math and use it outside the classroom, teachers must help them to develop a good number sense, discriminate between good information and useless information, build pattern recognition, and accumulate a host of other skills that they won’t learn if information is presented neatly and unrealistically in their textbooks.

In his California classroom, Meyer rewrote problems, taking out information or adding numbers that were not needed. Then he turned students loose to discuss how the problem should be solved, providing missing information as they requested it or helping students to find it on their own as they realized what they needed to get to get the answer. Although his students needed a great deal of guidance at first, they showed remarkable gains in mathematical operation use and reasoning by the end of the year.

It can be difficult to watch a child struggle, but Meyer maintains that allowing kids to wrestle with a problem is one of the best ways to promote authentic, lasting learning. He prides himself on being less helpful, believing that it is the best way to teach students to help themselves. You can learn more about Dan Meyer and his insights at his informative math blog.

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