Posted by: elenadbutler | November 16, 2008

The best way to teach math?

I’ve spent three summers teaching physics (and therefore a lot of math) to 8th graders, which means a lot of time spent thinking about the best way to teach certain subjects. At the program I work for, we learn all about mixing up the different learning styles–visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc–to make sure what we are teaching is as accessible to as many students as possible. I have a theory that this course may have been designed with this concept in mind; you have to teach, take tests, do problem sets, blog, and write papers, all of which exercises many more skills and modes of understanding than the typical math class.

On another note, there is also a lot of debate about which math topics should be taught to middle school students. The National Mathematical Advisory Panel released its findings in March of this year after President Bush called for a panel to figure out why Americans are relatively bad at math and why more Americans aren’t becoming scientists and engineers. I read about the study on the Newsweek website. The panel found that on average, American math curricula comprise too many topics. Their view is that math curricula should be “streamlined” so that students get a lot of practice with the most important topics, such as fractions. By and large, American math education comprises a huge number of random topics, from puzzles to probability, which apparently are not that helpful for the average American middle school student trying to get a solid foundation for algebra. Furthermore, these topics are often not organized to flow logically from one to another.

This came as no surprise to me because while working as a private tutor, I have met smart students who are still struggling with manipulation of fractions and negative numbers as they begin to study calculus. I always wondered how they could possibly be missing such basic math skills. After reading this article, I can imagine that being overwhelmed with less important math topics at the same time that you are trying to learn fractions and negative numbers would make learning the basics difficult. I myself remember hating precalculus because I felt like the topics followed each other randomly; in contrast, I understood the flow of my calculus curriculum and as a result felt more comfortable in the course.

The article I read cited the Singapore math curriculum as an example of an organized, pared down math curriculum that really works. I hope the US develops something similar. We could really use it!

The Newsweek article that inspired this post can be found here:



  1. See also this recent post in the NY Times about teaching math Indian style:

  2. The Singapore math curriculum is popular with a lot of home-schoolers.

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