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Balanced Math Instruction?

by Anne-Evan Williams, LGL Director of Educational Development

For years there has been a heated debate in the reading community:  phonics instruction or whole language instruction?  The surge of back-to-basics instruction has repeatedly conflicted with the views of educators who look at reading within a larger frame of reference.  While teachers all seemed to agree that comprehension was the ultimate goal, they openly disagreed on the instructional path to get there.  Many reading educators now agree on a "balanced" program of literacy, one that builds foundation skills while simultaneously engaging students with meaningful texts and opening discussions about meaning-making.

Now we're seeing the same debate emerge in the math community.  Especially in light of NCLB assessments, schools now are finding themselves in equally heated debates about basic math instruction vs. a discovery approach to building problem-solving skills.  Much like the debate within the reading community, the end result of real-world application seems to be agreed upon, but the process by which to get students there is hotly debated.

The issue of back-to-basics math was raised in a recent article on cbn.com.  Says NYU's Dr. Sylvain Cappell, "If you can put aside the technical steps and just do the calculations automatically, then you can go on to advanced material." 

Yet while some students do struggle with basic computation, still others struggle with engagement and problem-solving strategies.  Says Dr. Joseph Rosenstein of Rutgers University, "They need to become engaged. And if they don't become engaged, they don't learn, they don't retain it."  This is often the argument of those in support of a more exploratory process of math instruction.

So what's the solution?  Is one method of math instruction better than another?  Will one more quickly raise test scores and prepare our students for life after high school?  Math educators are beginning to find, much like reading instructors, that there is no right answer.  Just as students learn reading differently, students learn math differently as well.  Perhaps the new wave of math instruction will follow trends in reading instruction, melding together a balanced approach of basic computation and exploratory, problem-solving approaches.

Tags: math instruction, math intervention, balanced instruction, back to basics instruction

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