Against Mastering Mathematics

"This idea of mastery gets us into some trouble because it keeps young people from exploring their mathematical ideas."

In the most recent episode of Math Teacher Lounge, Bethany Lockhart Johnson and I interviewed UCLA math education professor Megan Franke. She shared some thoughts about “mastery” that you should really read.

[“Mastery” often means that] if you master addition and subtraction you can move on and do other mathematical work, but you can’t move on until you’ve mastered that. What that does is sort students between who’s mastered and who hasn’t, and it keeps young people like this young person who may have said “twenty-ten” from being able to do more interesting mathematics. We say, “Well, we’ve got to practice the number sequence first. We can’t let you solve any problems that go into the twenties. We can’t let you . . . ” when actually letting you go farther is going to let you explore the idea of the number system better than if I stopped you. This idea of mastery gets us into some trouble because it keeps young people from exploring their mathematical ideas.

Check out the rest of the conversation, which is short and amazing, at An idea that struck me by the end is that, for teachers, the most profound professional transformations require profound personal transformations as well. That raises the stakes on this work in ways I didn’t understand as a new teacher. As someone who has never successfully maintained any kind of separation between the personal and professional areas of my life, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What Else

  • “Results show that essays have a stronger correlation to reported household income than SAT scores.” This is the study that everyone in education research is talking about right now.

  • “No tax exemptions for universities with selective admission processes,” is probably the take on the study I found most interesting.

  • Get a spot at the free Amplify STEM Forum next week. Lots of great speakers, and I’m excited to contribute a new talk called “Math Without Mistakes.”

  • If you like the Notice and Wonder math routine in principle but struggle to structure that work in practice, check out this modification from Yorkville High School math teacher Kellie Stilson.

  • Berkeley High School math student Veronika Price made a beautiful hummingbird out of hundreds of mathematical expressions (see the image at the top of this email!) and I made a fancam video breaking the whole graph down.