Review of Math Investigations

Mathematics in school is a major issue in the US. Yesterday, Washington Post printed an article about a review of the mathematics curriculum in Loudoun County (Virginia). This county has introduced a curriculum for elementary school that is called Math Investigations, and there appears to be lots of critics who claim the curriculum fails to teach basic math skills. So, in the eyes of someone from outside the US context, this appears to be related to the so-called Math Wars. I am not trying to make any judgments in this debate, but it is interesting to be a spectator!

After reading about the curriculum on the web, I find it quite interesting. The curriculum was developed in the 1990s, and it was developed with support from the National Science Foundation. From their website, I learn that the Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (which is the official name of the curriculum, it appears) was designed to:
  • Support students to make sense of mathematics and learn that they can be mathematical thinkers.
  • Focus on computational fluency with whole numbers as a major goal of the elementary grades.
  • Provide substantive work in important areas of mathematics—rational numbers, geometry, measurement, data, and early algebra—and connections among them.
  • Emphasize reasoning about mathematical ideas.
  • Communicate mathematics content and pedagogy to teachers.
  • Engage the range of learners in understanding mathematics.
The guiding principles underlying these goals are that students have mathematical ideas, (...) teachers are engaged in ongoing learning about mathematics content, pedagogy, and student learning (...) and that teachers collaborate with the students and curriculum materials to create the curriculum as enacted in the classroom (quoted from their website). In many ways, the Investigations curriculum appears to have some common underlying ideas with the Everyday Math curriculum (which has also been strongly criticized by some). According to several impact studies, the Investigations curriculum appears to have a positive impact on the achievement of students, and Everyday Math is also a curriculum that is strongly based on research. As someone standing outside of this debackle, I am therefore somewhat amazed by the criticism these curricula has raised. Somewhat, but maybe not all that amazed after all. Our previous Norwegian curriculum (called L97) featured some of the same ideas about teaching and learning of mathematics, with a focus on letting the students discover and reinvent the mathematical ideas, having "mathematics in everyday life" as a main area of the curriculum, etc. After less than 10 years of implementations (evaluation reports showing that the curriculum had not really been implemented in the classrooms), it was replaced by a new curriculum called "Kunnskapsløftet" (Knowledge Promotion). This curriculum has a much stronger emphasis on basic skills, little or no mention of discovery and reinvention, little emphasis on connections with everyday life, etc. So, I guess this debate is not only typical for the US and in this case Loudoun county.

For me as a researcher, I think it is interesting to see how much resistance these "reform curriculum" efforts encounter, and it reminds me of something I read in The teaching gap. Teaching of mathematics appears to be some kind of cultural entity, and I think Stigler and Hiebert used the notion: "cultural scripts". In order to implement a new curriculum, it is often necessary to change some of these cultural scripts, and that appears to be a rather cumbersome endeavor...

P.S. If any of you has some references to research, articles, etc. that relates to the above mentioned curriculum papers, please let me know!


Anonymous said...

Check out www.pwcs.org. The math educators there have written a position paper addressing the critics of Investigations. I found it very informative

Barry Garelick said...

On the other hand, see "Teach Math Right" which is a parent's view of Investigations in PWCS. It is located at http://www.pwcteachmathright.com/

Reidar said...

Thanks a lot for both your comments! I might want to write a follow-up based on these :-)


Anonymous said...

My experiences with investigations leave me with mixed feelings. As a teacher I can see some of the benefits of investigations in the younger grades. However, any good teacher knows that one curriculum does not fit all. A balance needs to be achieved. Possibly a mix of tradtional practices and the investigations process. As a mom of a fifth grader I think it is horrific! My child who is identified in the Gifted and Talented Program in the area of math has been taught the investigation approach for 3 years. To our surprise he can't tell us the answer to 6 x 7. This program was sold to our school on the idea it would improve state and national test scores however I think they will soon regret they ever tried. So, my child has suffered as a result to this guinea pig experiment.

Anonymous said...

My child goes to PWC schools, is in the fourth grade, and is in the gifted and talented program. To my surprise, he failed a third grade assesment exam that I administered to him. Math Investigations is a horrible! The homework is maybe 3-6 problems and is incredibly easy. The teachers are pressured into teaching this program and have been told that they are not allowed to voice their opinions about it. The Superintendent and Carol Knight, head of the math dept., don't seem to take parents concerns seriously. They are more concerned with improving test scores. Guess what, they are not getting the results that they hoped for. This is not surprising at all. Time for traditional math and time to listen to the citizens of the community.

Brenda said...

As a fifth grade teacher who is being forced to teach Investigations I can tell you that the program is horrible. For one thing, it is not aligned at all to the state TEKS and if I follow it, my students will not master all of the fifth grade material they need. For example, this week we are directed to teach objective 5.1A. The Investigations learning objective is "the student will read and write numbers to 10,000. However, the state TEK is "students will read, write, compare and order numbers to the hundred billions". Frankly, I cannot in good conscience allow my students to suffer because of a mistake in the purchase of a curriculum.

Anonymous said...

Forest Hills School District in Cincinnati, Ohio just adopted this program for next year. We've been using Everyday Math for many years. One of the reasons for not sticking with Everyday Math was that it did not cover all of our state standards. All teachers had the opportunity to preview several possible programs and teach using some of the lessons. Many of us liked enVision Math. Our math committee chose Investigations which was my least favorite of all. I am very eager to hear more feedback about this program.

Erin said...

Our district just adopted Investigations for the 2009 school year. We've been using Everyday Math for years but found that at certain grade level Everyday Math did not allign with math state standards. Teachers had the opportunity to preview several math programs and our math committee collected our evaluations. Although no teacher in my building - that I know of - picked Investigations as their top choice, Investigations was selected. Some of us liked enVision math, but according to the committee, that program was the least favorite. I'm a bit anxious about the amount of time Investigations says to devote to math - 75 minutes daily.

Anonymous said...

I have taught Investigations for more than 7 years. My district is just adopting it this year. What I notice is that it is challenging for teachers and parents to wrap their brains around. When we are first teaching the curriuclum we are moved out of our comfort zones of "knowing math". Because we haven't been trained adequatley in how mathematics develops, we can't articulate that to parents. It is hard to be in a profession and suddenly feel like you may not know what you are talking about. With this said, I have become a much better math teacher in this process. My children love it and engage in it deeply. Test scores are driving a great deal these days, but for years we have been graduating children with high test scores who do not measure up in college. Change is hard and has well defined stages of development. As a nation we are is the beginning stages of change "anger" and "denial". When we move on to acceptance about our current situation we will begin to make progress. Specific research can also be found on TERC's website regarding longitudinal studies conducted in the northeastern region of the country. I am familiar with the work done in Louden county and Texas and both situations had good intentions. Implementation is a long slow process that requires deep planning and tons of support for teachers. No one curriculum meets all of standards of any one state. It is up to a district to put all necessary supports in place before making a shift. Prince William County has done a great job. Like with every county/state in the U.S. you will find the few exceptions to the rule but in general they are reaping the benefits of stronger mathematical thinkers.

Reidar said...

Thanks a lot for sharing! It is interesting to learn about your experiences with Math Investigations!

I very much agree with you that no one curriculum framework is perfect, and change is indeed hard! Thanks again for sharing your story :-)