Calculating success
Fresh
paint, a metal desk, a blue computer, some seed money and a grand idea.
That was the sum of TCU's Institute of Mathematics, Science and Technology
Education when its new director, Paul Kennedy, the William L. and Betty
F. Adams Chair of Education, arrived on campus in January. Kennedy,
former professor of mathematics at Southwest Texas State and a member
of state curriculum committees, has been charged with developing a program
that will raise the ruler on math and science education.
Kennedy
isn't daunted by the task. He says he's going to start by making soup.
By Nancy Bartosek
Q:
Soup?
A: I was
at the Catholic student center (at Southwest Texas State) with a group
to discuss starting a soup kitchen on campus. Some of the professors were
worried about the economics, and some were worried about lawsuits or this
and that. Finally, Father Bill said, "Well, all those things may be true.
But tomorrow morning I'm going to get a big pot and go down and make some
soup, and if you all want to come, just come." So I'm going to write a
grant, I'm going to get some teachers into the graduate program, and I'm
going to talk to faculty in the schools of science and education about
some initiatives to improve education in private and public schools.
Q: You've
taught junior and senior high school math, written six math textbooks,
developed teacher training institutes and student curriculum and have
served on numerous state committees that direct math education in Texas.
Why TCU? Why now?
A: It was
a natural extension of what I was doing. I've done a lot of work with
teacher training and graduate work with teachers. That's what they want
to get started here. We get to build the Institute from the ground up,
and that's very exciting.
Q: The National
Science Foundation reports that 80 percent of all jobs in the future will
require proficiency in math and science. How will the Institute address
that?
A: The problem
we have in training enough people in scientific areas has a lot to do
with equity in access for all children in math and science. We're missing
a big pool of kids, closing doors by not providing them access to higher
mathematical science. There's still a mentality out there that thinks
if kids don't know certain basic skills, then they can't reason mathematically
or scientifically, and that's just not true. My research has shown that
there is no correlation between paperandpencil, basicskills arithmetic
and whether a child can reason mathematically or algebraically.
Q: You mean
I'm not hopeless because I don't know 12 times 6?
A: Far too
many kids are being held back for that very sort of thinking. Pages of
rote computation drives the zeal for math completely out of their souls.
It's punitive. My children (John, 18, and Catherine, 16) have been using
calculators since before they could write. They are good examples because
they blow the ceiling out of tests like the SAT. I've never focused with
them on basic skills; I only focused on perceptual understanding. They
are the top mathematical students in their class.
Q: Children
don't need to do long division anymore?
A: No, kids
need to understand addition and subtraction, how to divide and multiply,
but even most mathematicians dislike computation. That's where technology
comes into play; it is a tool that gives kids access to higher science
and mathematical thinking. As soon as the first pocket calculator came
out, we should have moved to a basicskills curriculum that had to do
with place value, mental math and computational estimation.
Q: Why is
such a change so hard?
A: I think
the biggest problem is with attitudes about what kids can and can't do.
If every teacher believed that every kid could learn to think and to develop
real mathematical understanding, real analytical skills, then every kid
would.
Q: You think
the Institute can change that thinking?
A: The Institute
can definitely influence change in that direction. Take a teacher who
has been to a workshop and heads out energized and excited about teaching,
with new tools to use. They go into a faculty lounge at their high school
and say, "Look what you can do with a graphing calculator, look at what
you can do with your kids." The idea is to get to those crusty old algebra
II teachers, the ones who have been teaching the kids the same way for
25 years because, by golly, that's the way they learned it. That's how
change happens, teacher by teacher.
Q: Maybe
if you changed algebra's name, people would like it better.
A: Algebra
does sound a bit like broccoli, doesn't it! Some places actually are now
calling the courses Math 1, 2 or 3. But really, what matters is having
qualified teachers in the classroom and using the technology available
to get kids excited about learning.
Q: Is that
why one of the Institute's goals is to get more teachers into math or
science education graduate programs?
A: Absolutely.
There's a lack of certified math teachers, and elementary and middle schools
are particularly hard hit. Some kids go all the way through the eighth
grade without a teacher who has a math specialization. It's as high as
50 percent in some areas. And those areas tend to be the most socioeconomically
depressed. Those kids have a really hard time getting access to math and
science because they don't have people trained to teach them.
Q: What is
your first step?
A: I'm writing
a grant to do a math project for 30 teachers here that has to do with
algebra instruction in high school. Algebra is the gateway to everything.
If you have a strong algebra program from sixth grade on, you're going
to open up doors for kids, you're going to get more kids into AP Calculus,
AP physics. Kids value math when they see it connected to their own experience.
A vehicle to move kids to the next level of abstraction is to go through
something they already understand. So we try to drive kids from what they
can do to algebraic reasoning in a way that makes sense to them.
Q: And that's
where technology comes in?
A: Yes. Technology
 computers, the Internet, calculators, interactive CDROMS  is not
only fun and interesting, it takes away the drudgery, gets to the important
part, the thinking.
Q: And for
the kids, the fun part right?
A: That's
right, not a hint of broccoli.
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