Is American math education lagging?

Jan 3, 2011 by

Sonam Shahani – I argued, citing data that show the importance of engaging students in learning through hands-on approaches balanced with explicit instruction. These methods are taught in my university classes and witnessed in my student teaching placement classrooms. Teachers use activities, manipulatives, and real-world experiences to teach lessons. Textbook problems and worksheets are reserved for homework assignments.

The semester was ending, finals were over, and I was reminiscing about my 3rd grade class when a friend called to hang out. It was Friday night and I was hoping to do something fun. About an hour later, I was engaged in one of the most intense conversations about education that I have ever had.

The topic started out as: everything that is “wrong” in American education.

 

The conversation took a turn when I told my friend about a recent math lesson I taught during a job interview. I explained that I began with an engagement activity, followed by student exploration of the concept, an explicit explanation, elaboration, and final evaluation. This is the classic 5-E model taught in many university teacher preparation programs as a constructivist approach to education. I spent a few hours gathering materials and perfecting this lesson so I was surprised to hear my friend’s response. “But…this method doesn’t teach anything. First you have an engagement but the kids don’t know what concept to look for till the explanation. It just seems like schools spend too much time on activities and not enough on teaching.”

 

I argued, citing data that show the importance of engaging students in learning through hands-on approaches balanced with explicit instruction. These methods are taught in my university classes and witnessed in my student teaching placement classrooms. Teachers use activities, manipulatives, and real-world experiences to teach lessons. Textbook problems and worksheets are reserved for homework assignments. 

 

My friend disagreed and described his own elementary math and science experience: the students open their math textbooks, the teacher reviews a topic, models a problem on the board, incorporates a new topic, assigns textbook problems, and repeats this process the next day.  If the kids don’t do their homework, they hold out their hand, receive a slap with a stick, and continue through the school day. My friend spent his elementary and intermediate schooling years in a south Indian school. After moving to the United States in 8th grade, he says that two years passed before he learned a single new concept in his advanced math classes. Is my friend an exception, or are kids in some foreign schools really ahead in math?

 

Many friends and family members in my Indian community compare American and Indian education styles. One of the prominent differences they point out is the supposed lack of strict structure in American schools. While Indian educators consider play to be an important part of early childhood, it is reserved for P.E., recess, or home time. Students sit in rows of desks, wear uniforms, and take notes from a blackboard. Although the structure does not immediately seem conducive to learning, students who fall behind are still given extra help from their teachers and held accountable for improvement.

 

I attended part of 4th grade in India and remember the stark difference between my American and Indian schooling. The seventy girls in my Indian class were required to wear uniforms and sit with a partner in height order. Hygiene was an explicitly taught subject: how to maintain short nails, tie hair away from the face, and take a proper shower. The 4th grade was departmentalized and the teachers, rather than the students, would rotate between classrooms. The classrooms had large windows overlooking the gardens instead of colorful posters and pictures. The room was simple, but clean and large enough for all of us. We had math, science, history, English, Marathi, Hindi, and a rotating subject such as music, art, computer, and P.E. During lunch we could eat in the cafeteria, on the playground, or in the gardens. 

 

But school in India was tough for me. I would cry at home because the teachers were so strict compared to my teachers in the States. For example, one day I was absent and did not inquire about my make-up work when I returned. My teacher asked me to stand up as the class looked on and asked, “Why did you not even ask for your make-up work? Are you irresponsible? Didn’t you have homework in America or do you not even have school there?” To this day I remember how my face burned with embarrassment. Teachers would brandish their hands threatening a “nice big slap” if we misbehaved (but they never actually slapped us). Although our teachers had austere personalities, they cared about our well-being.  The teachers welcomed me to the classroom, introducing me to the class and providing a buddy to show me around, but wasted no time in informing me that my Hindi reading and writing scores were low and needed to improve. The teachers were certainly intimidating but also gave me extra homework and were available outside of the school day to help me. It wasn’t long before I made sure I was not only on top of my studies, but was working hard to stay ahead so I would never be embarrassed again. My transition to Indian schooling was difficult but I learned 4th grade math in depth and even missed my Indian teachers after I left. My friends and parents who grew up in India say they loved their schools and even their teachers’ stern personalities.  Upon returning to the U.S. to finish 4th grade, I too did not learn any new math or science concepts until the 5th grade.

 

One issue my friend and I agreed on was that Indian students are generally not encouraged to express opinions, feelings, and creativity as often as American students. India has received much criticism for placing too much emphasis on rote learning and turning “…a blind eye to the variety of expression” (Indian Educational Review 20). According to an article from the Hindustan Times from early 2010, “…rote learning will be replaced by a system…that will take into account the talents of children in fields such as music, dance, art, writing and oratory” (Sahoo). Even education reform abroad is shifting from behaviorist to constructivist approaches. In this way, aren’t American schools ahead?

 

As I vehemently defended my undergraduate pedagogical education and my friend drew from his experiences, the three hour discussion became, like this blog entry, a comparison between American and Indian education. However, our experiences coupled with anecdotal evidence provide no solid comparison between the two countries. Instead, if we consider the entire student-aged population of India we see that the literacy rate, while steadily increasing, it still low. Ultimately, India and America are very different countries with cultures that encompass different values and traditions. Maybe education in these contexts simply cannot be compared.

 

The most important reason for poor performance in American schools is a controversial topic. Educators and non-educators suggest that poor performance stems from a diverse population, poor measurement techniques, teacher preparation, adult supervision at home, and many other issues. Media efforts such as ‘Waiting for Superman’ and ‘Stupid in America’ suggest the concept of school choice as the needed element for improvement in American schools. On the other hand, some argue that American schooling is really not behind at all. I’m still formulating my views throughout my student teaching and hope to gain more insight when I have a classroom of my own.

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