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Minding Math

A special report from MIND Research Institute
Matthew Peterson is a co-founder of MIND Research Institute.
Matthew Peterson is a co-founder of MIND Research Institute.

Special Education and a New Normal in Math 

By Matthew Peterson

In fifth grade, I was allowed to enroll into a normal class with normal students. I even started to feel “normal” until I had to ask the teacher how to spell the word “girl”. I could never remember if it was spelled G-R-I-L or G-I-R-L. I made a wild guess and penciled the word “gril.”

“That would be pronounced grill,” he explained. “In girl, the i sound comes before the r. Can’t you hear that?”

I pretended that it all made sense, but in truth, it was hard to distinguish. Dyslexia can affect the temporal resolution of phonemes, and for me this made girls even more mysterious than they already were.

Math was mysterious too, mostly because it was all taught through language. It wasn’t until some fortuitous experiences outside of school that I was provided the opportunity to visualize math, and see the beauty of mathematics that too often gets clouded and marred by language.

In college, I started developing a program to teach math visually. My original intent was to make math accessible to students like me—students with language learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and autism. But as I developed and tested the program, it was clear that this approach was more than just making it accessible. By allowing students to see, touch and interact with fascinating mathematical mechanisms, they inevitably become infected with the love of math. It’s a love that all students should experience.

Seventeen years later, we now have half a million students actively learning math in this way, and extensive research shows that this method—transitioning from solving problems using visual, concrete models all the way to working with abstract symbols and language—is highly effective with all students, including students in Special Education programs and English learners. Through this program, a deep understanding of mathematics and a lifelong joy of learning is becoming the new “normal.”

Matthew Peterson is a co-founder of MIND Research Institute.

The Impact of the Common Core on Math Instruction

By Nigel Nisbet

When I was training math teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2005-2009, district math scores improved significantly; however, while LAUSD had invested nearly $500 million during that time in an effort to raise those math scores, the improvement was only the same as the state average. While we accomplished some good, we didn’t accomplish the systemic change that we hoped for.

Conventional thinking plagues math instruction. For example, I often saw students solve a math problem in their own way, often brilliantly coming up with the correct answer, but without using the formula the teacher was looking for. Of course, for this they received a score of zero. This discouraged students from “figuring it out,” and many of them shut down to math altogether. But “figuring it out” is precisely what we should want students to do.

To learn and understand math, students need to “figure it out,” to get answers wrong and see why, to approach problems in an unconventional way, and touch and interact with math problems. That’s not easy for math teachers, because naturally we want to just show students how to solve problems. Training teachers to teach this way is extremely hard. But, the Common Core standards are going to force us to teach this way; it’s no longer an option.

One of the key features of ST Math is its interactivity; students have to move objects on the screen to solve problems. If they get the question wrong, the program demonstrates why. This is critical to understanding the concept. ST Math has many activities which students don’t even realize are math problems because the math is so embedded. They are learning while doing this fun activity. We’re able to start with very basic concepts and routine problems, and over time, move students along a learning path to where they are solving non-routine problems in very creative ways.

We’re passionate about math instruction. We believe all students can be successful in math, and we believe our software is a tool that can enable that to happen.

Nigel Nisbet is director of content creation at MIND Research Institute.

Also in this edition of Minding Math: