The number of American kids who want to learn more math than is available in their schools is surging. While there have long been extra-curricular opportunities for students to expand their math skills, there are now a lot more to meet this new demand.
Google "math enrichment" and you'll get about 12 million hits. Summer camps and after school programs are out there in large numbers, programs like MathPath, AwesomeMath, Mathlly, IdeaMath, SPARC, and Math Zoom. While there continue to be the traditional ones like the Ohio State Ross Math program, many new ones "have popped up opening the gates more widely to kids who have aptitude and enthusiasm for math, but aren't necessarily prodigies." (Tyre, 2016, p. 52)
As a consequence of these programs, the number of American kids who can do "world-class math" has grown as evidenced by the gold medal that the six member American team won at the International Mathematics Olympiad in July of 2015. The competition among the six hundred students from 100 nations included the traditional Mathematics Olympiad powerhouses like Russia, China, and South Korea.
Unfortunately, this math surge has little or nothing to do with math as it is taught in schools, rather it is the result of a pedagogical ecosystem that "has developed online and in the country's rich coastal cities and tech meccas. In these places, accelerated students are learning more and learning faster than they were 10 years ago--tackling more complex materials than many people in the advanced-math community had thought possible." (Tyre, 2016, p. 52)
Despite what appear to be an abundance of new opportunities, the demand remains great. There is a better chance of getting a ticket to the Broadway hit Hamilton than getting one of the 250 for a New York University after-school math program, for example. (Tyre, 2016, #81303)
The poor quality of math instruction found in many public schools is partly responsible for the development of what is now a rich infrastructure for learning high-level math.
Inessa Rifkin, a resident of Newton, Massachusetts, who was disappointed by the math instruction her children were receiving in the affluent local public schools, founded The Russian School for Mathematics around her dining room table.
"I'd look over their homework, and what I was seeing, it didn't look like they were being taught math...I'd say to my children, 'Forget the rules! Just think!' and they'd say, 'That's not how they teach it here. That's not what the math teacher wants us to do!'" (Tyre, 2016, p. 53)
From its modest dining room beginnings, the Russian School now offers mathematics programs in 31 sites around the country.
The contrast between programs like The Russian School and school math is striking.
These new programs are not about the usual school fare of quick computation, rote learning, worksheets, and test prep. Instead the focus in these programs is on thinking about math conceptually and using that conceptual understanding to "predict, explain, and explore the world around them." (Tyre, 2016, p. 55)
The focus is illustrated by the experience of a group of seven second graders from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst and how they spent a wintry Sunday in December in a Russian School of Mathematics session taught by Irine Rober. During the course of the day the second graders were asked to individually create a narrative to explain the expression 49+(18-3).
"The children invented stories involving fruit, the shedding and growing of teeth, and, to the amusement of all, toilet monsters." Later on there were narratives about 49-(18+3) and 49-(18-3). While the session was lighthearted, the teacher and the students listened carefully to each story, paying attention to the logical reasoning. When one student "got tangled up in his reasoning, Rober was quick to point out the exact spot where his thinking went awry."
Rifkin teaches her teachers to expect that even very young children will come up with difficult questions and wants teachers to address even the most complicated questions from a solid mathematical foundation. "We want children to ask difficult questions, to engage so that it is not boring, to be able to do algebra at an early age, sure but also to see it for what it is: a tool for critical thinking. If their teachers can't help them do this, well--..."it is a betrayal." (Tyre, 2016, p. 54)
The pedagogical strategy that dominates within the extra-curricular ecosystem is simple: present a small group of kids who at a similar level in math with "a small number of open-ended, multifaceted situations that can be solved by using different approaches."
One problem cited by Tyre asked the students to "imagine a rope that runs completely around the Earth's equator, flat against the ground (assume the Earth is a perfect sphere, without any mountains or valleys). You cut the rope and tie in another piece 710 inches long. That increases the total length of the rope by a bit more than the length of a bus...Now imagine the rope is lifted at all points simultaneously, so that it floats above the Earth at the same height all along its length. What is the largest thing that could fit underneath the rope? A bacteria, a lady bug, Einstein, a giraffe, a Space Shuttle."
Pat Tyre's comparison between regular school math and the experience of math in these programs is worth quoting:
Sitting in a regular ninth-grade algebra class versus observing a middle-school problem-solving class is like watching kids get lectured on the basics of musical notation versus hearing them sing an aria from Tosca. (Tyre, 2016, p. 55)
So the challenge is stark. If many kids are eager for better math and thrive when they get it, why can't they also get in their schools?
Tyre, P. (2016). The Math Revolution: What’s behind the surge in American teens who are highly fluent in high-order math? The Atlantic, 317(2), 51-57.
The 2015 International Mathematics Olympiad American team was made up of Allen Liu, David Stoner, Yang Liu, Ryan Alweiss, Shyram Narayanan, and Michael Kural. The team’s leader was Po-Shen Loh; deputy leader was John Berman.
Curious about the “String Around the World Problem?” You can read a discussion of it here
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.