Thursday, 22 May 2008

It's Thursday again...

In case you couldn't tell, I am really enjoying my Intro to Ed course on Thursday mornings (and I'm not just saying that because I made the mistake of mentioning my blog to my prof and he asked me for the address...)

Class today was on teaching styles. The professor started by asking us to raise our hands and express our preference for either one-on-one style teaching or one-on-mass. I abstained since he hadn't specified if we were to answer from the point of view of a university student or a potential teacher, or what type of class/subject/etc... yes, yes, I know, my father always complains when I do this splitting hairs thing! Anyways, so it turns out the prof was basically setting us all up. You see, he asked the question expecting something along the lines of the 3:1 in favour of mass teaching response that he got. (disaffected university students want as LITTLE individual contact with their profs as possible, after all!) Then we watched video clips of innovative math classes in a US private school and a large but cutting edge public school in China. Both teachers used various teaching method, including games to keep the kids interested and small group activities to involve everybody at once. While there were obvious differences, the similarities between the two classes were quite striking given social and cultural differences between China and the US.

The Chinese kids started their lesson by chanting their times tables up to five, and then singing a song with the same. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the games and activities that followed were all checking memorization - quite often focused on getting the child to give the correct answer as quickly as possible. Numbers were expressed in abstract terms - words, numerals or traditional hand gestures (not simply holding up that number of fingers).

Until asked by my professor, it didn't occur to me just how different this was to the American classroom, and to how I had learnt math in Canada as well. When I went up to hand in my weekly comments sheet he asked me if I had been taught math through physical representations of numbers. My immediate response was (in my own head) "Of course so! One apple is one apple, two apples are two apples and the easiest way to explain 1 + 1 to a 5 year old is to give them two apples." But apparently they don't teach that way in Japan (or China either, for that matter). Huh. I have a vivid memory of a first or second grade math class where the teacher handed us REAL money (woo hoo!) and had us count it out individually. Why do I remember one specific class from over 20 years ago? Well... they say we remember the bad things the longest, right? I can't for the life of me remember any of the games we played at lunch time or recess, but I remember this one math class very vividly. You see, I got mixed up between time and money, and decided that there were 60 cents to the dollar (and no I'm not talking exchange rates on the Canadian dollar!). So I counted it up and decided I had $1.05 When I announced this to my teacher she did a double take and squawked "I didn't give you THAT much money!" Sure enough, I had only $.65 My entire class laughed and I was left with a life-long memory of shame...

Right, so where was I? Ah, yes... Thursdays are for Education...

So what about your elementary school math classes? Did you learn basic math through physical representations (money, blocks, etc) or did you memorize it by rote? I'd love to hear feedback on this one!

My professor already knows what his comments are going to be. After watching the videos and seeing the American and Chinese classrooms and how basic math was being taught, most of the university students who raised their hand in support of mass lecture-style teaching would be doing an about-face, supporting inclusion of individualized teaching and other forms of learning as important teaching tools. Not simply telling us the answer, but giving students the opportunity to "come up with it" on their own? In teacher-speak I think that's called "guided discovery."


  1. Hi Sarah
    Back in the 60's we did everything by rote. I remember my Mom helping me make up a rhyme for 8x8(is 64, Daddy's coming through the door) the school I work at has blocks that the kids use - they don't seem to help them remember the times table!

  2. This will be my last comment of the day, I promise!
    I think I learned how to multiply by rote. I don't remember how I learned how to add (not at school anyway), but I know that my adding abilities were greatly aided by a game of cards I played with my family, literally called 'Addition' (in Chinese, Jia-Fa). At least, it helped me to add up to 13!
    And as a university prof, I much prefer seminars (15 students or less) to large lectures (over 300 students). I am just not a natural performer, so really have to work at the performance aspect of teaching large classes. But some of my friends/colleagues are great lecturers and really enjoy the performance aspect. Pedagogically speaking, I think large classes have to be supplemented by individual or small group activities and assignments, otherwise a lot of average and marginal students just get lost and alienated. My two cents worth...
    love and hugs, Cath