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Why Students Need to Know the Why of Math

April 18, 2008
By: WSU News

By now, it’s old news that U.S. students are behind their Asian counterparts when it comes to science and math performance.

What’s new is the urgent attention that mathematics education is getting at the national level. And a Worcester State College professor is helping focus that attention.

Richard Bisk, chair of the Worcester State College mathematics department, spoke to the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington on April 16. This is an organization of state commissioners of education.

The speaking invitation from the Asia Society, which organized the meeting, cited Bisks expertise on the use of Singapore Math in the United States and noted your contributions would contribute much to our scheduled discussion.

The education commissioners are very much interested in performance in math, Bisk said. They realize that as a country were in terrible shape.

Bisk discovered what has become known as Singapore Math when he was asked to do a two-week summer course for teachers on this topic in 2000.

“I liked how crystal clear and succinct the approach was,” Bisk said. “The books really help students gain an understanding of deep mathematical ideas.”

Singapore emphasizes mastery of core mathematical concepts. Its students perform significantly better than U.S. students in international comparisons.

Why Singapore? It isn’t as if other Asian countries aren’t ahead of the United States in mathematics education. The textbooks used in Singapore are in English, which makes them easily adapted to U.S. classrooms. Japanese, or Korean, texts would be much more difficult to use here.

About two months ago, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, whose members President George W. Bush appointed, delivered its verdict on the state of mathematics education in the United States.

Among its findings?  The panel called for U.S. students to have a deeper understanding of basic math skills, including fluency with numbers and fractions. Furthermore, the panel noted, most U.S. math textbooks are too easy, especially at the elementary school level. Mathematics texts in Singapore are much better at presenting concepts and helping students to understand math, which is something Bisk noticed when he first used these texts.

Bisk, a former co-chair of the Massachusetts Math and Science Advisory Council, practices what he preaches.

“In our professional development program, we use the Singapore Math texts to help teachers gain a deep understanding of math so that they can then teach for understanding,” he said.

“We also use Singapore Math in our first course for Worcester State education majors,” he added. “And Mary Fowler is using it in the geometry class.”

Last summer Bisk organized a Singapore Math Summer Content Institute at Worcester State College. The 2008 Singapore Math Institute will run from June 23-27 for K-8 teachers from throughout Massachusetts. Those who want to earn graduate credit will sign up for an additional two and a half days, June 30, July 1-2.

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