By Rob Lukasiak
I can’t say that I travel very much, although over the past few weeks I have made trips to Nashville and Pittsburgh – both work-related. The Nashville trip was to attend and co-present at the 2018 iNACOL Symposium. This was my first time at an iNACOL event and honestly, I thought it was one of the most impressive conferences I have ever attended. There were more than 3000 attendees and over 200 workshops and presentations to choose from. iNACOL is all about “personalized learning” and its annual conference is the industry’s leading event for K-12 competency-based, blended and online learning. It was also amazing to see how many education leaders from NH were present and had prominent roles!
My one criticism of the conference was the lack of sessions that featured mathematics – especially since the request for proposals specifically asked for sessions that would focus on mathematics. There were only one or two sessions that had a math focus and ours was one of them. Our session was titled, Making the transition from a traditional teacher-centered mathematics classroom to a more student-centered classroom in a competency-based education model. You can view our PowerPoint at https://sites.google.com/view/lttclassroom/home
One thing I would like to share, which happened several times at the conference, is that whenever I am engaged in discussions that involve “personalized” or “student-centered” learning, there is often a reaction that math teachers and math departments are some of the most difficult groups to work with. Many will say that they don’t engage and are lagging behind when it comes to transforming their practice. Have you ever heard this before?
I will say that I am a little surprised by those who still insist on a strict dedication to a “traditional” approach to mathematics instruction. I agree with Steve Leinwand when he says that traditional methods work well for about one third of your students. If our mission is to reach ALL students, then a traditional approach alone falls disturbingly short. In terms of making mathematics teaching and learning more student-centered, are we keeping up?
My trip to Pittsburgh was to visit Robomatter Inc. Robomatter is the development and education division of Vex Robotics – which is a leader in educational robots. Vex Robotics “envisions a world where every student has the opportunity to be inspired by the excitement of hands-on STEM learning.” Vex Robotics is also a course that is taught at many Career and Technology Education (CTE) Centers throughout the country. I made the trip to Pittsburgh along with Nashua CTE Center Director Amanda Bastoni and head teacher Chris Knoetig. We are working together thanks to a grant from the NH DoE devoted to “Improving Options for CTE Students in NH”. Amanda is the leader and visionary behind the project. We are looking into the feasibility of transforming Nashua’s current one-semester Vex Robotics course, taught by Chris, into a full-year course that would also include credit for Algebra 1. Later, we will also be looking into the feasibility of doing something similar with their manufacturing course to include geometry.
Now, it may not be surprising that, while there are many who are excited by this project, there are those who won’t be. I am keeping an open mind. While I can see many challenges and have many questions, I am also intrigued and hopeful at the thought of finding MORE ways to make mathematics MORE accessible and meaningful to MORE students!
At Robomatter – and full disclosure, I know little to nothing about coding or robotics – I was definitely able to see opportunities where students could engage in some “real” mathematics that can also be aligned to CCSS-M – especially the 8 SMP’s – while using robots and technology as tools for learning. With the use of numerous sensors and programs, robots can collect all kinds of data which can then be displayed, analyzed and altered. Does this sound like a rich and relevant way to engage with mathematics? Isn’t conceptual understanding of abstract ideas and procedures made stronger through the use of concrete experiences that can be modeled using mathematics? Should this type of learning environment be limited to CTE students? Can this experience be worthy of “mathematics credit”? In terms of making mathematics teaching and learning more relevant, active, interesting, and fun, are we keeping up?
It really bothers me that so many people have a poor relationship with mathematics. If we were to assign blame for this phenomenon, it would be widespread. But I am not a fan of assigning blame. Rather, I am advocating that, together, we continue to practice* and share ways to improve our instruction – to make it more student-centered. Let’s also continue to explore more opportunities to make relevant connections such as those that exist in STEM or CTE. In other words, let’s do our best to keep up!
I invite your feedback to my questions and comments. I also welcome any support you can offer NHTM, as part of our mission to “improving the teaching and learning of mathematics so that each student is ensured quality mathematics education”.
*Using NCTM’s 8 Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices for example