Math Education Research

In my last post, I argued in favor of eclecticism in teaching. The response I got was unusually enthusiastic in terms of numbers of visitors, retweets, and comments on Twitter. Unusually enthusiastic compared to what I’m accustomed to: I’m far from being an Internet celebrity. Still, it felt like I said something that resonated.

However there were three substantial disagreements / questions aired in the Twitterverse.
1. Not all ed research is flawed
2. Asking for the big ideas underlying good lessons is not asking for fads
3. One should oppose faddism, not coexist with it

I’ll respond to #1 today, and to the other two in a future post.

Aran Glancy says: “characterizing all educational research as flawed is unfair.” Of course, he is right. The point I was trying to make was that even valid research that is used to support the unrealistic claims at the core of various fads should not be generalized beyond reason. As Aran puts it: “the issue is much, much less about the quality of the research and much more about how it is misused to create the fad”. Fair enough. We agree on that.

As evidence that I don’t think all research is flawed, here are links to past blog posts in which I praise specific bits of ed research:

and a guest post:

So far, so good. But Aran took exception to my statement “I like research that confirms my beliefs, and appreciate the work that goes into it.” I am not retreating from that. Much research claims to prove things I know are false, or at any rate not useful to me. I have neither the time nor inclination to analyze those papers.

For example, I was told that short periods are better than long periods for teaching math, because someone found a correlation between higher test scores and shorter periods. (If I remember right, this argument was used by administrators at a school that had a very strong math program, which was catastrophically undermined when moving to short periods.) While I am sure some good teaching can happen in shorter periods, I believe it’s absurd to make a blanket claim that those are superior to longer periods. (See Math in the Long Period and Teaching in the Long Period for an explanation of my views on this.) If there is such a correlation, it could be due to the fact that it is schools that were less successful on tests that felt a need to try block schedules. Or it could be that the tests measured something other than depth of understanding. Or it could be something else. I don’t have time to look into it. I hope and assume that someone else’s research sooner or later will establish the opposite result.

Here’s another example. I’m a big fan of the “growth mindset” fad, and in fact have been making some of those points for years. Having some research to back this up is excellent. But frankly, some of the research is hard for me to take seriously. The claim that being exposed to this concept in a slide show is sufficient to change a student’s mindset is hard to believe, even if some short term effects can be observed. What may have a lasting effect on student mindset is restructuring one’s teaching to make clear in practice, not just in words, that students can get better at math. This would include such policies as extending exposure, lagging homework, de-emphasizing grades, valuing test corrections, making explicit every day that getting it wrong is often a necessary stage on the way to getting it right, and so on. In other words, a classroom culture that challenges the dominant culture. I would love to be able to point to research that supports those things, so if someone reading this post can do a study comparing such practices with the single slide show approach, I’d love to know how it turns out.

The fact is that research is influenced and framed by the researcher’s values. As teachers, we don’t have time, and most of us don’t have the interest, to survey the literature, evaluate papers, and impartially reach conclusions. We need to find math ed researchers who share our values, and use their results to refine our practice, and to dialogue with administrators. For example, if equity is an important goal for you, find the researchers who share that concern. Their work is likely to be useful. If you prioritize understanding over memorization, or collaboration over competition, find the research that is about that. And so on. But to be honest, it will often be more fruitful and practical to get your ideas from fellow teachers.

Some years ago, at a conference, I saw a math ed prof who was an expert on the learning of geometry. I had recently read one of his papers, and I said to him: “Your research confirms my beliefs!” Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, with a big smile: “That’s what it’s for!” Was he joking? I don’t think so. That is indeed what it is for.


(To be continued!)

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