Why You Should Read Barry Garelick’s ‘Teaching Math in the 21st Century’

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I doubt Barry Garelick, author of the recent and valuable Teaching Math in the 21st Century, has any idea how his ideas and writings once helped me out of a huge jam, but they very much did. Without them, to be quite honest, I have no idea if — or from where — the support I’d needed would have come. It went something like this:

I was writing chapter five of Education Is Upside-Down, and it was giving me utter fits. I couldn’t make the thing come together how I’d planned, and my struggles just cycled and recycled. (In all, the process for chapter five featured more revised sketches/outlines, additional research, re-drafts, outright section cuts, wailing, and gnashing of teeth than I experienced for any other chapter.)

At the bottom of all this struggle was something simple and colossal: I had no idea how to talk about math instruction. And, I felt, without such an idea, the ‘stool’ I was building would be missing a crucial, balancing third leg.

It was particularly frustrating because I had a lot of good raw material, things I saw as connecting to my larger argument. I knew good amounts about long-existing traditional-vs-constructivist math tensions from my professional (and personal — yes, I’ve helped my daughters with lots of multiple-strategies-required, write-a-paragraph-about-your-process, repetition-reluctant math homework) experience and study. I also knew some things about post-secondary math educators’ related concerns and actions, worrisome trends in U.S. students’ math performance, how longitudinal data labeled certain math milestones as post-secondary-success ‘gatekeepers’, and so on.

I couldn’t write about any of it confidently, however, because I had no story to go with what the research and debate were describing. While supplying this story was easy for me when surveying literacy research or cognitive-scientific work around critical thinking, say (I’d been a high-school English teacher for a decade, and had witnessed reflections of researched conclusions loads of times in my classroom), I had no way to fill that gap on the math side of things. I was confident I understood the issues theoretically, in other words, but I knew that wasn’t enough; without some better understanding of — and way to credibly portray — the issues’ practical procedures, my so-called understanding was meaningless and flimsy. It could well be way, way off, and it could well get shot through and dismissed by those who actually lived in the trenches. Not. Good.

Not having the time to sit through an actual math teacher-training program or to observe and/or interview dozens of math teachers, though, I needed someone to teach me this story — and quick. I was on a manuscript deadline and had several chapters to go.

Backed into this corner, I adjusted my research approach and began encountering lots of work by this guy ‘Barry Garelick’. He was math-degreed, professionally seasoned outside the ed world, passionately interested in improving math instruction, theoretically versed, and talking about what teaching math today was like. (For a quick sampler catalog of the types of things I read at the time, see Garelick’s work for The Atlantic and Education Next. I RECOMMEND ALSO you see this more recent piece — on, of all things, mathematical procedures’ relationship to mathematical understanding.)

Reader, I did not come out for days. It was perfect for my debacle. His work was at once valuable for pointing me to useful research and data about math instruction and (more importantly) for walking me through what the controversial math approaches looked like when one was attempting to use them.

And Teaching Math in the 21st Century is valuable on these very scores. In it, Garelick (a versed and able researcher, as evidenced by articles referenced above) veers away from making his major points with technical justifications, performance statistics, and research literature. Instead, he chooses to show readers things like how students process various methods, which messages are conveyed to teachers in professional development sessions, and what being observed and evaluated looks like in schools today.

In fact, anyone who’s worked in a school will see quite a few familiar faces across Garelick’s vignettes: there’s ‘Sally’ from central office, dutifully parroting the new instructional emphases and accompanying slogans (but who might not fully agree with them); also ‘Elisa’, the math-unsure student who validates Garelick’s traditional approach by buying fully in (and who discreetly, heart-warmingly expresses her appreciation); and Mr. Lake, the very young teacher in the next classroom who’s got all the new assessment and group-work practices down pat (whether effective for student learning or not).

It’s a fascinating approach, and one that deserves heavier rotation from the evidence-based ed-improvement community. It should be clear by now, after all, that the evidence-based community’s pile of great facts are no match for the frames and slogans of the ideals-driven side of the debate. These frames thus erected, even the best facts will continue to bounce off them. If more people become more methodically exposed to the effects observed at the practical, ‘boots-on-the-ground’ level Garelick chooses in Teaching Math in the 21st Century, on the other hand, perhaps stronger, more attitude- and practice-altering frames can be constructed.

Put another way, Garelick’s book provides a valuable lesson on how to appeal to practitioners: it does not seek to transform big-picture understandings of teaching and learning so much as it appeals to individuals’ familiarities with teaching’s procedures. Maybe, just as with the writing process and with mathematics-learning, this is a step we’d all be wise to stop skipping over.

So I guess I have to thank Barry Garelick twice: first for unknowingly helping with my own research and writing, and second for his fine Teaching Math in the 21st Century. Here’s to hoping lots of people read the book (and his earlier works, of course) and begin, moved by the effective frame Garelick has chosen, rethinking their own approaches to teaching math.

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