In a recent blog, (“How to solve big problems: Lessons learned from cancer scientists”, jamesclear.com) the author cites the personal example of his sister’s cure from leukemia as an example of how a focus on finding the solution to one type of cancer brought success. Research doctors who met with success in treating leukemia were then able to apply their findings successfully to other types of cancer. Clear concludes that when “you’re facing a complex problem or trying to do something bold, start with a smaller version of the larger problem. Focus exclusively on that small problem and solve it.”
Shortly after reading this opinion, I stumbled upon a provocatively titled New Your Times Magazine article, “Why Americans Stink at Math”. My curiosity and annoyance in the title encouraged me to read it. The author points out the commonly shared statistics and stories of math learning in America and then cites the successes found by Japanese teachers who had the opportunity to develop their math teaching skills. Curiously, the type of math teaching that brought student successes was developed in the United States and promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Unfortunately, the recommended pedagogy did not take hold in America. Following in the tracks of other math reform efforts, fears of the same cycle of failure exist for the common core math standards. What the author holds out as key in changing student learning is teacher learning. Lesson studies, collaboration with peers, and opportunity to study the art of teaching are examples of strategies to build teacher learning to implement common core math.
So how are school districts tackling the complex problem of implementing the common core math standards? Is this complex problem probed to identify the key factors likely to have the greatest impact? And what are they? And if professional learning is identified as the key variable, how can the scope be focused so that classroom instruction is impacted? What is the small problem that can be solved?