On Sequestering Math

August 29, 2016
Geoff Krall

Geoff Krall

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.

Read more at Emergent Math.