Moving From the What to the How: Designing and Implementing a Vision for PS-12 Mathematics

By Kenny Nguyen, Upper School Mathematics Teacher, Department Chair, and PS-12 Academic Leader

Designing and implementing a vision for PS-12 mathematics

When I teach beginning math teachers, the most common question is, “What do I do if the students ask when they’ll ever use this?” This question instills fear in preservice math teachers, perhaps because to answer truthfully would be to admit: “You won’t.” Take a few seconds to think about whether you use any mathematics beyond basic arithmetic and algebra in your working life. Chances are that unless you’re working in a STEM field or teach math for a living, you don’t.

This is not to suggest that mathematics education isn’t important or understood as such—it still dominates conversations not only at Catlin Gabel but throughout education. So, why does math get so much attention? To understand this, it’s best to consider a different question: “How has math impacted your life?” That is, has the knowledge of mathematics, or lack thereof, impeded your progress in life? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that what students take away and remember from their PS-12 math classes isn’t any specific content. Rather, it’s how to think about numbers, make comparisons, and, most importantly, how math made them feel (positive or negative). So, we are confronted with a potential conundrum: Perhaps how mathematics is taught is more important than what mathematics is taught.

That is not to say that the what isn’t important, too. Indeed, over the past ten years, the research in curriculum and instruction in mathematics education has made two major contributions: (1) The articulation of the most viable learning trajectories that students take as they learn mathematical concepts and (2) the habits of mind, learning dispositions, and non-cognitive skills that are needed to maximize their content learning. We have taken on the same lines of inquiry at Catlin Gabel, which is why in 2014 we adopted the national Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, ensuring that our students are not only prepared for the ACT and SAT, but for the next level of mathematics at every stage, particularly at the “joints,” as they transition from fifth to sixth grade and from eighth to ninth grade.

As a school, however, it’s new for us to have a unified math vision that articulates how mathematics should be taught. We recognize that developing habits of mind and non-cognitive skills requires deliberate skill building over multiple years. Without alignment as to how communication skills should be developed over time, the student experience could feel disjointed or different from year to year. To eliminate this confusion and to articulate the specific non-cognitive skills that we wanted from all of our graduates, we examined our beliefs as a PS-12 teaching team comprised of myself, Herb Jahncke (third grade teacher), Alix Woodall (Middle School math teacher), and Jim Wysocki (Upper School math teacher), and co-authored this instructional philosophy statement:

The Catlin Gabel PS-12 Math Instructional Philosophy

The Catlin Gabel math program develops students who are joyful and creative problem solvers that approach challenging mathematics with curiosity and perseverance. Through independent effort, communication, and collaboration, students investigate and analyze problems flexibly, construct their understanding of mathematical concepts, and develop the skills and strategies to pursue current and future endeavors.

With a clear vision of what should be taught and how it should be taught, we are excited for the future of our math program. Over the next few years, we will use this math vision as our guiding aspirational statement. And through collaboration, professional learning, and global teacher practices, we will grow to deliver this vision.