21st Century Math Instruction – My Personal Experience

As a new teacher, my philosophy in mathematics instruction is definitely subject to change. I am currently 28, and I view my brain as a sponge with no firm imprint of what learning should be.

Here is my current understanding of what 21st century math instruction means to me based on my personal experiences as a student, teacher ed. candidate and substitute teacher. I will note that this philosophy is only rooted in my own personal experience as I have not been exposed to enough literature on the subject.

As an elementary-trained teacher, I have noticed in my work experience that there seems to be an abandonment of the drilling methods that were common “back in my day”. Gone are the days of mad minutes and endless textbook work.

Instruction in my world has morphed from rote to inquiry learning, the latter of which is tremendously engaging and rooted in research. However, I have noticed a few issues with the implementation of the 3-part, open-ended, rich-task and inquiry-based math.

Due to the fast paced nature of elementary school, 3-part math is preferred for many teachers as it is supported by boards and engages the highest number of learners at once. It also keeps the young brain fired up and excited about math. Conversely, individualized worksheets which emphasize skill development and subsequent repetition are not as common. Arguably, It can be said that only small number of 21st century learners benefit from rote instruction. Those who have developed the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time and apply their thoughts to paper seem to be the select few who can thrive with traditional methods.

Once the students from elementary enter secondary school, I notice a lag in pencil-paper, mental math and calculating skills. A lot of students are lacking number sense, numeration and knowledge of mathematical rules and notation. This lack of development seems to stress students out as they enter a learning environment that is much different than what they were used to in elementary school.

The instructional paradigm in secondary seems to be more based in tradition than it is in elementary school. Skill development and the ability to take the test are emphasized the most, especially in 9th grade. As EQAO looms over the heads of freshmen and their teachers, I notice an increased focus on back-to-basics learning. I do not have as much experience working with senior learners, but I am assuming that an individualized approach is the norm, as students are still expected to achieve excellence in mathematics on their own at the post-secondary level. This means that teachers who wish to prepare students for post-secondary may be emphasizing individualized learning, which is often skills and drills-based.

The aforementioned observations do not mean that inquiry is impossible with senior learners, but I can imagine from a marking point of view that it is more manageable for a teacher to evaluate students in a traditional context.

Senior math teachers also have to keep in mind the workplace’s expectations for employees. What will people need to know when they head to work? Keeping up with the work world outside of our education bubble is no easy task. The best thing a teacher can do to stay current is continue to network with people from a variety of professions.

With this in mind, I can see how there is no easy solution to approaching math instruction. A delicate balance of skills instruction along with the excitement and real-world application of inquiry needs to be achieved. The transition from elementary to secondary needs to be smooth. Students need to be prepared for the demands of post-secondary institutions and the workplace. But how? I cannot answer this question so early in my career.

Please let me know what you think!