Friday, July 10, 2015

Why is Math So Confusing Here in Georgia (the United States)?

I’m not originally from the South, although I’ve attended university in Louisiana and have spent the majority of my life educating young minds in different subjects. I love teaching more outside the classroom where the only one accountable for the time on task is: me. I left the classroom several years ago and was excited at the idea that I would never have anyone peer into my classroom or think - because of some honorary degree they received for writing a paper on a topic that nobody in their academic career will reference, that they were better than me (or my peers) in any way. 

I’ve observed good teaching and I’ve also shaken my head in classrooms that were so unruly - it was as if I were doing volunteer work in a Juvenile Detention Center. On any given day of the week, I will say this: “Georgia, we have a math problem.”

Background Information

Several years ago I spent time in a Professional Development class offered by the county that I was employed in. We were assigned materials to read and meetings that we would attend as a group with the primary objective being: to deliver higher quality instruction in the classroom. There were some topics that were presented that were eye-opening and others where I felt that it really was a true waste of taxpayer time and money. Here is what I have to say from that experience:

Math instruction suffers from an identity crisis

When I perused through the book that was used in Professional Development, it details the ethnographically based stories of how a group of selected teachers spent time overseas and came back to say, “The way they teach math in Europe is like this…. The way they teach math in Asia is like this… Let’s copy them.” 

It’s not that simple. If you could imagine for one second that you are in the time of Shakespeare when King Polonius says, 

“The clothes don’t make the man
It’s the man that makes the clothes”

this reflects upon the notion that it’s not math that makes the country great but the country that makes math great. 

When you look at a country that values math, it is not just math but a perspective in how they approach life. For example, in Japan and Germany,  math class, (okay all classes) are not longer than 45 minutes with 5 minute breaks in between. Students are not in school for more than 5 and a 1/2 hours and there is a huge emphasis on homework. Math is performance driven in Europe and Asia and is a subject that both boys and girls enjoy.

Math instruction needs to be addressed at the administrative level first

I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all. I actually love math (statistics, graphs, calculating p-values the old fashioned way) and in one semester in university I took five math classes at the same time (it must have been fall, there is no way I would choose truly brain intensive classes during the spring!) What many do not realize is that in order to be a decent math teacher, you need to know the material with a high amount of proficiency and when possible, tackle the areas in the learning materials where the Big Box publisher has made errors or fails to provide adequate explanations and exercises. Needless to say, you need to present the information in the best, most succinct way possible and deliver an explanation within seconds on how you arrived at the solution. It’s math people, not a pseudo language arts/math combo class.

Math instruction is like a visit to the doctor, you’re happy until they ask you to come back for “more testing”

If you spend four hours each night studying the 3.5 concepts that your teacher assigned to your child in the second semester, it’s not because it was a “fluke”, it’s because your teacher (and the rest of the teaching staff at school) suffer from “Bi-Polar School Year”. 

The first part of the school year is a time where the teachers and the administration do “whatever it takes” for you to buy into the culture of the school. Sometimes they do not assign homework and turn a blind eye to failing grades, not meeting expectations, and addressing issues that may prompt red/orange/or pink flags for your young student. Come second semester and the Appeasement Period comes to a screeching halt as your student is exposed to more tests than the State Department.

Your child becomes more stressed, you begin to lose your patience, and the school uses the ultimate phrase that will set you off into SpaceX, “Well, these are the standards..”

Similar to what an ideal “preventative care” medical system would look like where your doctor works with you once every 9 weeks to monitor your vitals and your dietitian and physical therapist work in tandem to support your active lifestyle, this rarely happens in education. If your child is enrolled in a Study Skills class, it’s a class that is actually known behind closed doors as “Study Hall” or “I sure hope that I can finish the Tic Tac Toe Board of answers for 2nd period Algebra so that I can go to the restroom for 30 minutes and visit the library to watch YouTube on the unfiltered computer.” In the private sector, it’s what we call a “Band Aid Solution”, a solution that is temporary that has no significant long-term effect.

Math instruction is built upon problem-solving and strategic thinking, not a trip to Best Buy

I think video tutorials are great - but not a substitute for the art and science of learning. Perhaps many individuals who are teachers without true pedagogical training do not know this but there are different periods in learning that an individual must undergo before they reach mastery. I’ve never read a Cognitive Development book where you can substitute those formative stages for a YouTube Video or Khan Academy. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Sal Khan is an incredible guy who has utilized his pedigree and talents to help the educational community at large however, math education is a systemic problem that does not only affect a select group of students, but this generation as a whole. We should provide students with much more than the experience of logging onto a website; we should provide them with the skills and abilities of a young adult who will thrive and be well prepared to make good decisions when they grow older.

What Now?
Luckily, there is something that parents can do to offset the burden of math instruction. At Learning Ridge, we provide high quality instruction and specialized programs that will give your student the time and the focus they need to be proficient in math. We have worked with numerous students in the Atlanta community and have seen sustained results in our approach to math as well as our commitment to excellence.

If you have any questions about Singapore Math at Learning Ridge or our Signature Tutoring Program, please contact us at or at 404-964-8533.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

(4th) Language Learning: Some Things Never Change

It’s never easy when you grow old(er). I have a feeling that as I am approaching an age where I can remember more presidents that this generation can remember iPhones, there is a need to continuously stay sharp and “relevant” in today’s performance driven environment. 

Leap forward to Monday, June 30th when I signed up to take my fourth official language class. Oddly enough, I always noticed that I had a keen interest in the art of communication. By the time I was in 8th grade, I had given myself creative license with the task of learning a new language in school (Spanish) and was fully embracing my native language (an unofficial language in the states of Nevada and California). In order to learn my native language, I painstakingly put together my own “native language” curriculum from the local library where my parents would grade me (unwillingly) on grammar and linguistic abilities (If only my grandfather, a former government attorney and Dean of Economics, would have seen my father’s “lack of tutoring” skills, he would be disappointed). I would spend entire afternoons writing my notes, then writing them neater, then indulging in my own cerebral processing of what I needed to say if certain conversations were presented to me. I was not given any direction or feedback, only the assurance that each day was a chance to build on a steady foundation of words and cultural nuances that did not exist before.

It has been over a decade since I had formally been in a classroom learning any language, yet it only feels like yesterday. I remember taking Japanese at university and was perplexed at how detail oriented the Sensei was. Needless to say, old habits never die when you are a student. 

I signed up for the class and proceeded in the same way that I approached school when I was younger. I made sure that I was physically, mentally and emotionally prepared. Books, notebooks and materials were ordered and accounted for. My “first day of school” attire uniform that prompted comfort and would allow the teacher to take me seriously was laid out for me the night before. A “power” breakfast in the morning would prepare me  for my day at work that included a 30-minute lunch period where I would “break out” and review the chapter ahead and delineate through vague/ambiguous terminology. I gave myself an hour block  to reach the office that on a “non-Atlanta traffic day” would just be 20 minutes. I created an environment for myself that relied upon planning, organization, and proper execution because, as you all know - there are more than enough factors that one cannot control. Sure enough, there was.

As I finally walked into the class, I felt like the same little girl who entered 1st grade when I was five years old. I was (and still am) painfully shy and could not muster the courage to do anything but grin at my fellow classmates. I sat in the front seat by the teacher so as to not explain to anyone that it has (and always will be) the best seat for me to learn from. I slowly took out the materials from my book bag and had remembered to put my phone on airplane mode so that I would not disturb the other students. After I was settled in, I observed other students and listened in on their conversation from my window, hoping to join in but apprehensive when the invitation would be sent.

When class started it was just like in traditional school (only with a 2 1/2 hour class at 6pm at night). It was highly engaging and involved the use of a SmartBoard which as everyone knows, can be blamed or praised for it’s effectiveness. Interactions were moderately engaging and I found that there were some people who knew a few basic pronunciation rules and others who probably should have spent a day trying to pick up on some basic vocabulary. I enjoyed the class, the interactions, and felt almost in my element after so many years.

Regardless of who you are and what you do in life, it is hard for some people to turn over a new leaf. We all have individual strengths, challenges, and coping strategies that solidify our true character and make us successful. I know that the only way to succeed is to forecast what your blind spots are: in my case it’s my shyness that I have yet to overcome and my inability to accept failure or mediocrity. Although I cannot speak for anyone else, it’s not such a bad blind spot after all. 

Excited to learn language #4 !

Taking German (because I couldn't finish up Japanese)