At Mathalicious, we provide teachers with lessons that help them teach the Common Core Standards through real-world topics: Should McDonald’s rewrite its menu in terms of exercise? Do taller Olympic sprinters have an unfair advantage? Our goal is to put teachers in a position to engage their students in thoughtful conversations, to challenge them to think more critically about the world and to live more meaningfully in it. As former educators ourselves, we view teachers as central to this process, indeed irreplaceable.
However, it was not always thus. When I (Karim) first started Mathalicious in 2009, it looked very different. Lessons were video based. Students worked in small groups on a series of questions, and used the videos to check their answers. There was a role for the teacher, but it was more that of traffic cop than Socratic guide; teachers directed the flow, but in many ways the driving was left to someone else.
This changed one evening when another teacher friend and I watched the videos for Hi, BMI, a sixth grade lesson on the mathematics of body-mass. As the narrator explained the formula, I grew increasingly agitated and blurted, “Who does this guy think he is, teaching my students?!” Perhaps this was an overreaction –- surely it does take a village -– but it was one rooted in the recognition that the more meaningful the lesson, the more central the teacher.
Since then, and inspired by such educators as Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson and others, Mathalicious has evolved into a resource that seeks not to be instruction but to support it. The videos disappeared. Handouts became tighter, lesson guides more focused. As an organization we have become more fluent in designing lessons that scaffold learning outcomes while still providing room for authentic inquiry. Put simply, Mathalicious lessons have gotten better.
Practically, though, they’ve also gotten harder to teach. When is it worth buying a hybrid car? In a close basketball game, should you ever foul at the buzzer? These types of open-ended explorations challenge students to think creatively, but also resist prescriptive approaches and simple solutions. However, as anyone who’s spent significant time in a typical American classroom can attest, math instruction is still largely characterized by rote procedures -- do this, then do this. While many teachers want to teach differently, the process may be so unfamiliar that it feels out of reach.
Helping teachers make this transition will require a meaningful commitment to professional development. While many technologists may advocate for “solutions” that attempt to usurp key aspects of the teaching process, we believe that education is fundamentally a human endeavor, and that any lasting improvement in learning outcomes will require an investment in human capital. As a small organization, though, we do not have the capacity to lead in-person workshops across the country, and must be more innovative in how we support our teachers.
We are excited to announce that we have been selected as a winner of the 100Kin10 Research Design Competition to, in partnership with the University of Chicago's Urban Education Laboratory (UEL), design, deliver, and study the impact of online professional learning communities on helping teachers integrate more inquiry-based activities into their instruction. We are honored to be in the same cohort as California State University-Long Beach as they investigate using a Lesson Study model to help elementary teachers implement Common Core Mathematics in grades two through five.
We have been inspired by the UEL team’s commitment to developing rock solid evidence for what really works in training and retaining skilled STEM educators. Over the course of the 2013-14 school year, Mathalicious will work with teachers in 52 middle and high schools who have unlimited access to our lessons. Some teachers will take part in a structured online professional learning community -- an intervention designed to support their transition to inquiry-based instruction. Some of them will not. We will measure the differences in several outcomes including student assessments, teachers' use of our lessons, and teacher job satisfaction. The UEL team will help us figure out which parts of the intervention are most effective, and these results will be used to inform more effective professional development in the future.
Every day we work hard to make great lessons. But lessons are made of potential energy. They require skilled teachers to realize the learning they promise. But the evidence for what anyone can do to help a teacher become "skilled," especially at scale, is scarce. Over this next year, we are going to figure out what a tiny curriculum company can do to support an enthusiastic and dedicated group of teachers in transforming their practice, when partnered with professional researchers, exploiting the collaborative power of the Internet. It's going to be an exciting year.