Literacy Forum: Why Is Math Important?

Josiah Brown sent in the following report about an event in which he took part.

On April 29, the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven and Gateway Community College held a late-afternoon forum at Gateway downtown. Panelists considered “Why Is Math Important?” from the perspectives of educators from the elementary grades to college, and from a business point of view.

Curtis Hill, executive director of Concepts for Adaptive Learning and a Coalition board member, welcomed the audience and the panelists:

  *Michelle Breaker, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, Gateway Community College
  *Stephen Hegedus, Dean, School of Education, Southern Connecticut State University
  *Charlene Tate Nichols, Mathematics Education Consultant, State Department of Education
  *Creola Smith, Math Instructional Coach, New Haven Public Schools
  *Jeff Solomon CPA, Partner, Marcum LLP

As moderator, Curtis Hill introduced the Literacy Coalition and its series of Forum events, noting that this was the first centered on math, or numeracy

Following a brief opening video segment from a PBS Nova program on math (“the language of the universe”) and its role in fields including engineering, biophysics and computing, he asked each of the panelists to address the importance of math.  They discussed a range of learners, whether behind or at more advanced levels, seeking to close achievement gaps and meet the needs of “all students.”

“Equity ... through Students’ ... Understanding Their Mathematics”

Charlene Tate Nichols said that after working in the insurance industry, she became a teacher when she “grew up.”  A former New Britain “teacher of the year” before becoming a math consultant for the State Department of Education, she still identifies as a teacher, not just “a policy person.”  She is “passionate about” the idea that “equity comes through students’ knowing and understanding their mathematics” and has long attempted “to convince our students and our parents” of this.  She described math as “beautiful,” “logical,” “empirical,” and “eternal” – not dependent on “opinion, fashion, or belief.”  She wished that as a “society,” we had “the disposition” to recognize how consequential math is, “not just because of the test.”  Invoking USA Today’s graphical depictions, she stressed the significance of being able to discern such information.  When in the classroom, she recalled for instance, she tried to inspire students to use graphs to track daylight versus dark, to show how they spent their waking hours and thus to become comfortable with proportions and algebra in their daily lives.

Workplace Connections, Making Math “Fun” and “Interesting”

Jeff Solomon, a former member of the Coalition board and the panel’s representative from the business realm as a CPA at Marcum LLP, agreed with Ms. Tate Nichols that some knowledge of math is needed for a range of occupations.  For example, he mentioned construction/contracting (familiarity with detailed “specs”) and health care – from its insurance to its pharmaceutical aspects – as among the numerous industries that demand math.  He believes more students, parents, and teachers should be exposed to ways that math is used in workplaces, with Junior Achievement one instrument and stock exchanges with “an imaginary pool of money” another vehicle for making math “fun” and “interesting.”  He called “financial literacy” a “huge” need and opportunity, and cited “problem-solving” as a skill with broad application.

Balancing Challenge and the Experience of Success, Creatively

Creola Smith (who also worked in business before becoming a teacher) echoed the centrality of problem-solving and discussed ways that she, as a math teacher and now instructional coach in the elementary and middle grades, has sought to drive students’ learning.  She described computer games, adaptive problems, and “hands-on” tools like blocks as useful.  She embraces “project-based learning” and games like chess, which combines deliberation with competition.  While challenging students, she emphasized her view that they must “experience success” in order not to get discouraged.  She said that students have to be “invested,” but “we need to meet them halfway” and “be creative,” for example showing that outside in our neighborhoods, games (hide-and-seek, hopscotch) can involve counting from an early age.  Number sense and place value are specific priorities, among those in the Common Core standards for mathematics.

“Access” and “Accountability”—and “Respect”

Stephen Hegedus arrived in Connecticut in 2014 from Massachusetts, where he worked some fifteen years and became familiar with its high-stakes 10th-grade MCAS exam, which requires algebra.  In contrast, he noted, a century ago only a fraction of the population anywhere knew or needed algebra.  Now, for instance, insufficient algebra skills contribute to a shortage of nurses and can impede job growth in a variety of other sectors.  For some observers, he asserted, math is mainly about “access,” while for others “accountability” is the concern.  He spoke not only of “low performance” but also of “motivational issues.”  As he said, “there’s nothing elementary” about elementary school, where foundational learning occurs (or not); he believes that earlier exposure to key concepts, as opposed to “remediation” later, should be the aim.  “If mathematics is a universal language, then everyone” should be able to do math, even as there is “flexibility” in how to teach to standards, i.e., the Common Core.  Like Charlene Tate Nichols, he maintained that math’s standing in society needs to be enhanced, that it’s worthy of greater “respect” – which would discourage any tendency for adults, in an unfortunate example for youngsters, to deride math.

“If you understand math, and can read, you can teach yourself anything.”

Michelle Breaker spoke with 19 years of experience teaching at Gateway Community College, where she seeks not only to advance students’ skills but also their “mindset” – their confidence that persistent effort will pay off.  Students have often asked, “Why do we need to know this?” or “When are we going to use this?”  She cited several answers that she and others have provided, including the value of being able to “think analytically” and make “better arguments,” becoming “less gullible” and learning how to learn; “If you understand math, and can read, you can teach yourself anything.”

The panelists continued commenting in this sequence until reversing course, in response to questions posed by moderator Curtis Hill.

Tradeoffs of Technology

Questions also emerged from the audience.  For example, Donna Violante – a Coalition board member and executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven (which held its Scrabble benefit the next night) – asked about tradeoffs of technology: the virtues of calculators and computing, versus the distraction posed by digital technologies and the erosion of human computation skills that may result.  Stephen Hegedus, while acknowledging the risk of skill erosion, argued that technologies can legitimately “alleviate some of” the “cognitive load” associated with, say, data synthesis and analysis.

Other audience questions concerned such matters as:

  *Word problems and the connection between reading comprehension and math;

  *Preparation of math teachers, and the suggestion that perhaps there should be elementary-grades math specialists (as with the middle and upper grades), given the essential math “foundations” laid in the elementary years;

  *“Fear” and “insecurity” around fractions and multiplication tables, in particular, that an instructor of developmental math had repeatedly detected among adult learners.

Common Core, Math Standards and Practices

Returning to the topic of Common Core standards that had arisen in the comments by Creola Smith and Stephen Hegedus, Charlene Tate Nichols observed that the standards are intended to foster more sustained teaching of fewer, key topics, with “depth” and “coherence.”  She pointed to the eight mathematical “practices” that complement the standards – from attending to “precision,” to “model[ing] with mathematics.”  For example, she said, calculators present the challenge of how to “use appropriate tools strategically.”  She mentioned “coding” as a way to bridge logic, language, and math.

(Reporter’s note: Roger E. Howe of the Yale Mathematics faculty led a 2014 seminar, through the Yale National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools, on “Place Value, Fractions, and Algebra: Improving Content Learning through the Practice Standards.”  This reporter works with the New Haven affiliate of that National Initiative.)

In conclusion, moderator Curtis Hill explained that – having himself majored in math in college (at UConn) – he has always had a keen interest in the subject, even though he doesn’t regard himself as an “educator.”  (He did found Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the nonprofit educational enterprise that he continues to lead, after a career in the computer industry.)  He called himself a “spectator,” who has appreciated watching educators like Creola Smith at work with young people, propelling progress in their “attitude” toward and confidence about math, as well as in their skills.

“Quantitative Literacy,” or Numeracy

Numeracy, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the capacity for quantitative thought and expression.”  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL, the last such comprehensive survey, published in 2003) uses the term “quantitative literacy,” distinguished from “prose” and “document” literacy.

The NAAL characterizes quantitative literacy as the knowledge and skills required to read and perform computations using numbers in a way that allows one to execute quantitative tasks, such as reviewing a receipt, bank or credit card statement, or sports statistics.

(Some readers may wish to explore “Quantitative Literacy in Historical Perspective.”)

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven – sponsor of the Literacy Forum series – is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.

The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog, News/Events calendar, and presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH.

There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public School Foundation, and New Haven Reads.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  Upstairs in the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, and art gallery of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).

You can help by:

• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;

• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;

• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;

• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information:

Earlier articles on the Coalition and its events:

“Libraries in the 21st Century”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

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