This week, ATETV showcases a popular program from last spring, “It All Comes Back to the Math.” In this segment, employers told us that no matter what the career – Geospatial Technology, Fuel Cell Technology or Architectural Technology, for example – math is an integral piece of the job, and every technological field is rooted in numbers, calculations and equations.

But, for many people, math itself is rooted in fear and frustration. We wondered why this is the case, and wondered what steps are being taken to reduce math anxiety and to help students in the United States catch up to their fellow math students around the world. So we “rooted” around and learned that these same issues are being debated – and new ideas and answers being proposed – among educators around the country.

In fact, a 2009 Special Multimedia Report by the National Science Foundation titled, “Math: What’s the Problem?” opens with the questions, “Why do so many people struggle with math?” and “Why is math important anyhow?”

William Schmidt, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Michigan tells the NSF he believes that one of the likely reasons why math is perceived as being difficult is simply based on a longstanding accepted culture of “math phobia.”

“Other countries [on the other hand] respect mathematics and expect all kids to learn it to some basic level,” he says. But, in the U.S., “it’s acceptable for an adult to declare, ‘I’m no good at math,’ [and leave it at that].”

Adds Jeremy Roschelle, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, “I think when people are saying, “I don’t need any more math and arithmetic, they’re looking at [just] one kind of math, which is sort of shopkeeper math…But when you’re looking at people who are innovators and driving the future of the economy, they look at math as a tool kit that allows you to do new science, engineering, and innovation, and that’s not [just] about adding numbers… When you can put the concepts in a digital interactive, often dynamic, or animated form, students are much more able to really understand mathematical concepts and when they understand the concepts they perform much better.”

Here are some other changes that are afoot in the field of math education:

*In 2008, the U.S. National Math Panel highlighted several key areas for change, calling for elementary and secondary schools to streamline math courses in order to focus on a “well defined set of the most critical topics.” In essence, this would mean that rather than taking a soup-to-nuts approach year after year, students would master a few core math skills in each grade. In addition to recommending this “focused, coherent progression of skills,” the panel recommended that going forward, greater emphasis should be placed on algebra instruction and on an understanding of fractions.

*A report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, stresses the need for “reasoning and sense-making” when it comes to high school math instruction. As described in a Q&A document on the Council’s website, “reasoning” involves “drawing logical conclusions based on evidence or stated assumptions,” while “sense making” involves “developing an understanding of a situation, context or concept by connecting it with existing knowledge or previous experience.” In other words, they recommend that math skills not be learned in a vacuum, but rather, be integrated into real-life experiences. As the Q&A further notes, “In high school literature courses, students are often asked to analyze, interpret or think critically about books they are reading. Reasoning is important in fields such as literature and it is [also] particularly important in mathematics.”

*And, The Chronicle of Higher Education recommends that math become a “gateway” rather than a “gate keeper” to a student’s successful college education. Among other things, the magazine noted that as part of math instruction, an emphasis should be placed on learning “statistical reasoning,” which supports decision making under conditions of uncertainty — an inescapable condition of modern life. As the article states, “A grasp of statistical reasoning will help students to understand the world around them. It’s math they can use right now.”

David Bressoud, President-elect of the Mathematical Association of America puts it this way, “Mathematics, at its heart, is really [just] looking at the patterns in the world around us, numerical patterns, spatial patterns, especially, and understanding those patterns….That’s part of human nature…that’s built into our DNA, that we look at the world around us and we try to understand what’s likely to happen.”

Tags: mathematics, Mathematics Association of America, NCTM, NSF, SRI International