This week ended the third unit of the MLCS course for this semester, concluding with a test and reflection on the open-ended problem for the unit. Heather and I both noticed growth in the classes. Our students are working, they are learning, they are progressing. Connections are being made. And that's very satisfying because our goals are two-fold: prepare them for the next math class they will take and prepare them for college level work. We call that mathematical maturity.
The place where this growth was most evident this week was their open-ended projects. Grading them was a very positive experience. They made connections between algebra, graphs, and numbers while solving a non-routine problem. We don't hold their hands on these problems. We let them be problems, not exercises. Raise the bar but provide the preparation necessary to clear it. Heather remarked happily when we compared the project solutions, "This is what developmental students can do."
New courses like MLCS, Statpath, Statway, and the like aren't about lowering standards. They raise them. It's an unspoken truth that many developmental students pass developmental algebra without ever doing much thinking. They learn to decode, memorize, and mimic their way through skill lists and tests. The idea that algebra is a treadmill for the brain is pervasive but not necessarily a reality. Certainly algebra can be that, but many students find a way around thinking if given the chance.
In these new courses like MLCS, they don't get the chance. Students have to read and reason through new problems constantly. Application, connection, and retention are required to move forward.
And those goals are the same as the Common Core.
Nationally, mathematics educators are coming to the same conclusions. We need to update our curriculum both in terms of objectives but also expectations. Jobs that require mindless repetitive skill are being eliminated constantly. Today's employers expect and require much more from their employees. They expect new hires to learn a new set of skills, integrate them with the knowledge already gained, and apply all of that to new problems. It's not, "here's a problem I need you to solve. Here's how you do it and 10 to practice. Now go." It's, "here's a problem. Go." We do students no favors by shielding them from what's coming down the road. Life isn't simple. It doesn't come in bullet points or with View an Example.
This isn't to say that online homework systems are bad. They aren't. Actually, they're a key cog in the machinery of this new course. I need time to problem solve with my students, not do 10 iterations of a skill. But the skills have to be learned. Online systems like MyMathLab make that possible.
My concern is the overdependence on online systems and the conclusion drawn by many that they are the way out of developmental math. There is no shortcut to learning. A student can relearn a skill they didn't get in high school, but that does not equate to understanding, retention, connection, or application. It means they can now do that skill, whereas they couldn't, period. And I disagree with the notion that the human element equals lectures and is therefore bad. My presence in the classroom does not mean I'm a lecturer. I'm a teacher. I create lessons, tasks, and problems for my students to solve and facilitate that in many ways. Sometimes that's direct instruction. Sometimes it's circling the room to give feedback and keep students progressing. It's varied and complex and not duplicated by a computer.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that advocates of computer-based lab models decry lecture only to put students in front of computers to watch lectures. Yes, students can repeat and rewind the lecture as much as they want. But there's even less engagement in terms of mathematics because the student can't converse with the instructor. I believe engagement is more than two students talking in a math class or lab. It's what they're talking about and what the goals are that matter. In MLCS, I've seen students really debate and discuss mathematics. My eyes have been opened to what this student is capable of. And it's a quite a terrific sight to see. I'd always believed they were capable of more than skill manipulation but I hadn't honestly seen it to know it could happen. But it can.
The Common Core seeks to do the same as we in higher education want to do: raise the bar but make it appropriate as well. However, training, materials, and support are not yet where they need to be for true change to occur. Placing a new cover on a textbook and saying it addresses the Common Core doesn't make it so. To accomplish the new goals of change and growth, we have to throw out some of the structures and mindsets of old and start fresh. It's hard for everyone at first. But the outcomes are worth it. Now my students don't want a different kind of math class whereas when we began in January, they couldn't imagine how this class would work. They've been pushed and they've risen to those challenges.
It certainly makes me want to explore what more can be done with the instructional and materials design we've developed in terms of other courses. I've told my colleagues that MLCS has ruined me on traditional courses. I've seen more so now I want more in all my classes.
I guess it's a good thing to have goals. Keeps one on her toes.
Math Lit Toolbox
- 2017 Webinar Math Lit 5 Years Later
- Math Lit Forum
- MLCS Book: Math Lit
- 2014 Math Literacy webinar (Youtube)
- Math Literacy Training
- 2013 MLCS Presentation: What is Math Literacy? (Youtube webinar)
- MLCS syllabi (objectives and outcomes)
- 4 Credit Hour Math Literacy Course Syllabi
- A Typical Day: Math Lit classroom videos
- Math Lit instructor support
- Math Lit FAQ's
- Implementing Math Lit Presentation (Youtube webinar, PPTs, & handouts)
- Implementation blog series