Maj. Sherri Tombarge
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Raise the Floor and Raise the Ceiling

FullTextImage/img/@altDr. Cathy Seeley addresses the first plenary session of VMI's STEM education conference. -- VMI Photo by Julie Rivera.

Teaching Transferable Math Skills to All Students

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 2, 2012 – VMI’s 500-seat Gillis Theater was packed to capacity yesterday afternoon for opening events in the Center for Leadership and Ethics’ STEM education conference, “Math as the Gateway to STEM Success.”

That large audience was ready for participation as Dr. Cathy Seeley, speaker in the conference’s first plenary session, asked its members to reflect on their own teaching experiences and offer observations to the group. Seeley, author of Faster Isn’t Smarter: Messages About Math, Teaching, and Learning in the 21st Century, espoused a “you-we-I”-oriented teaching scheme – upside-down teaching – in which the teacher approaches her math students this way:

“You’re going to mess around with an interesting problem. We’re going to talk about that. I’m going to make sure that I connect the pieces.”

It’s a method of teaching, said Seeley, that allows and encourages students to struggle, to think, to figure things out, in an environment of trust and collaboration.

“We learn good stuff from wrong answers,” said Seeley, and all students need the opportunity to participate in that kind of learning – the opportunity, she said, for high levels of achievement in math.

Today’s math students need three things – the Big Three – that students have for decades tried to master: understanding math -- making sense of it; doing math -- skills, facts, and procedures; and using math -- thinking, reasoning, applying it to solve a range of problems.

“We realize that each of these is dependent upon and lays the foundation for the other two. But today’s math students also need something more.

“In addition to the Big Three,” said Seeley, “we also need some new stuff, the new basics: deep transferable skills for versatilizing – problem solving, reasoning, research, communication, creativity.”

In short, said Seeley, “You’ve got to be able to take the skills you know and apply them to a situation … that didn’t exist when you learned them.” Math teachers are focusing heavily on these transferable skills and are challenged by that focus.

“It’s hard to learn how to teach this way,” said Seeley.

To give students all that they need, the U.S. education system needs an overhaul, with more teachers grounded in high-level mathematical knowledge and every student given the opportunity for quantitative and scientific thinking.

Every single student, she said, is a “citizen in a society where mathematics have more to do with everyday life than they ever have in history.”

That society offers a new generation of assessments – technology-driven, challenging, focusing on problem-solving skills, with questions that go deep, and take longer – assessments that students will be prepared for if the instruction is good. No need to teach to the test.

“What students believe matters; what teachers believe matters; and what teachers do about this matters,” said Seeley. “That’s what we’ve been talking about.”

The action item is for teachers to re-examine how they put their beliefs into action.

“We can make small changes in our own behavior that will allow our students to succeed,” said Seeley. “It’s absolutely necessary.

“Raise the floor and raise the ceiling. Bring up all students. By doing so, we identify stars we had never seen before. … We can turn untapped potential into unlimited potential.”

–Sherri Tombarge  

–VMI–