Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite comments of '10: Deirdre Mundy and Barry Garelick on Paul Sally

(Math problems of the week: 4th grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math)

Deirdre Mundy

[Paul Sally] used to be director of the Chicago Math project-- though some googling just now says he left because he and the educators kept butting heads--they wanted to dumb down his curriculum....

Four years into the Chicago Math experiment, Sally departed as director, pointedly. “I got fed up with the educational bureaucracy,” he recalls, expressing the view that school leaders generally felt the best way to engage students in math was to make the math easier. He wanted to make it more challenging, in part by teaching the concepts behind simple mathematical operations—why any number multiplied by zero equals zero, or why the product of two negative numbers is always positive. 

( )

I wonder what he envisioned as the ideal math program for elementary school-- as the homeschooling mother of a daughter who adores math (I told her she could do math whenever she wanted and she acted like I gave her unlimited nintendo!), I'd like to see what the Sally curriculum would be!

Barry Garelick

I have spoken with Jim Milgram, a math professor from Stanford, who knows Paul Sally and of his involvement with Everyday Math. The description you provided via Google is correct. What it leaves out is that the Chicago Math (i.e., Everyday Math) program as originally envisioned was for gifted and talented students. The lattice method of multiplication, which is a mainstay of the current incarnation of EM, was originally included as a sidebar type of discussion, not as an alternative algorithm. The sidebar was meant to provide some discussion of why the method worked--something notably missing from the current EM. Jim remarked that he can spot some math problems in the current EM which were part of the original, and it is interesting and disheartening to him to see how the problems are just left as problems with none of the discussion and development that Sally and crew had originally intended.

The forces of the ed school politics at U of Chicago prevailed at that time, and Sally was unable to push back against it. This may seem incredible given a mathematician of Sally's stature, but not so incredible when you consider that teachers with frighteningly little math knowledge and proficiency have told Jim Milgram that he doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to how kids learn math. Jim would be the first to admit he is not an expert on pedagogy, but he does know what content students need to master and the proper sequence for presenting it. Content and sequence in the ed school perspective are viewed as obstacles that have prevented students from learning math.


Ray said...

Given the frequent criticisms of group work and class discussion posted on the site, it seems odd to see support for Paul Sally.

To quote from the article this reply linked to:
"Sally would want middle school teachers who attend his weekly SESAME classes to do more or less as he does on Saturday mornings at sessions of the Young Scholars Program. When he asked the two dozen teenage students that morning in February for the sum of all numbers between 1 and 111, he wasn’t looking for a single number. And he didn’t drill his students on a rule for arriving at the answer.

After offering clues, he had the students break into discussion groups,"

Barry Garelick said...

Why don't you quote the rest of the article, Ray? It talks about how he led the discussion and arranged the groups:

"After offering clues, he had the students break into discussion groups, as they might at a college-level seminar on Chaucer. The students sat at rectangular tables and were assisted by six college students and one alumna, all belonging to “Sally’s gang.”

Key words: "Offering clues", "assisted by six college students and one alumna".

Also the fact that he "wasn't looking for a single number" is amplified later in the article. He summarizes the conclusion that the groups came up with; a formula: n(n+1)/2:

"Sally’s conclusion did not, of course, offer a bottom-line number, but took the students to the point where the rest was mere calculation."

Discovery learning done right is powerful; done wrong it's a frightful waste of time. Group work can be done right; and it usually amounts to giving students information and guiding them to conclusions, not leaving them off on their own. I'll stand by what I said. Again, his conception of Everyday Math was that of a program for gifted students, and the lattice method of multiplication was a sidebar to illustrate an alternative method of multiplication and getting students to explore why it worked. It was not "the main event".