Breaking the Mold of Math Curriculum

I went to probably the best math conference I have been to all year. It was basically the blogs I read and love come to life. The presenters were a married couple, Randy and Sue Pippen. They are both retired high school middle school/ high school math teachers who now travel around Illinois presenting conferences to teachers. Practical, funny, hands-on, and in your face. Just the way I like my teachers.

I was spellbound from the first moment as I furiously began taking notes. (And by furiously I mean that it's so much that I will break this into separate posts to avoid making you furiously take notes on my furiously taken notes) And what better place to share said notes than my online-open-to-the-public-electronical-teaching diary!

The conference started with us doing math. (Similar to the way class should start maybe? Hm.) We started with KenKen puzzles and he announced that he would not be passing out papers. One person from each table had to go get enough for each person at the table and pass them out. (Which reinforces my desire to have tables and not desks!) He explained then that some students need to move and they will be the ones to get up and get the papers. Their philosophy was that teachers work less, and students work more. In a nutshell, be less helpful! That's when I knew it was going to be a magnifical day! 

We had a group discussion on the evidence that what we are currently doing is not working. Here's the list:

  • Lack of mental math, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in students
  • Little or no work ethic
  • No dialogue between teachers and students about thinking and learning process
  • Teachers are isolated
  • Curriculum is loaded
  • Students hate math
  • No real-life applications
  • Too much review of topics that weren't truly understood the first time
  • Our students don't know how to learn on their own.
 Marzano released some research in the past few weeks that "Five years of effective teaching can close the gap between low-income students and others." Define effective.

Conversation Starter: Is the drop out rate increasing because more math is required? I haven't been around enough to know but I just came across this article (via @JackieB) a few minutes ago that suggests yes. 

It may be obvious, but Mr. Pippen pointed out that we have not been trained how to make math intriguing and applicable to our lives now. This saddens me. But there is hope people, and it's found in this amazing blogosphere. *cue touching music similar to the ending of every Full House episode*
Their policy on grading was to make it count. Don't punish them for practicing. If I collect,  then they should have the opportunity to correct. They pointed out that the United States culture has taught kids as long as it's done, I'm done. Work is not done until it's correctly done. They did mention that they thought homework was important (which I am agreeing with less and less) but that it should be recorded and reported, not graded. They hit upon the fact that we all have students in our class who cannot do math. How did they get there? They have been passed along on their inflated grades thanks to homework completion and participation points. These types of grades are not informative. Let's make grades actually mean something! Q: What informs students, teachers, and parents if learning is occurring? A: Standards Based Grading

I was inspired by their great sports analogy. In sports, do you keep score during practice? No. You're looking for progress and improvement, not a certain number. If you do keep score, does it count? No. It's a measure of your progress and improvement. In sports, is every time you play together a game? No. Repeated practice comes before the true test of your ability. Love. It.

Time Limits. Give students time limits to create a sense of urgency. Don't use 5, 10, or 15. Students don't pay attention to those amounts and we usually make them mean whatever we want. Try 7 minutes. Who is in charge of the time limits? We are! We don't have to stick to the time limits, we just have to give them. If our activity is failing, end it early. If students are doing math, keep it going.

Classroom Management. Minimize problems by giving options. If a student doesn't want to do the 10 problem activity with the rest of the class, then give them 15 problems to do on their own. The penalty for not doing something, should be doing it. The goal is doing math. Eliminate the conflict by giving choices of how to do the math. But they still have to do the math. It's easier for them to quit than to try and fail. If they choose to quit, they are control. If they try and we fail them, they are no longer in control and that's when fear sets in. Spend the first two weeks of the year making them as successful as possible. Success breeds success. Starting the year reviewing the same topics they failed at last year implies that this too will be another year of failure.

The solution to review is to embed review inside the new. Instead of taking the time out to teach order of operations, let's throw them headfirst into solving equations where, by george, we have to use order of operations! Genius I tell you. We cut out the first two to three units of review by embedding them into the material that is truly essential to the course. Then we cut off the last few units that are an intro to the next course. If they're teaching it, why should we? By trimming the first and last units out of the curriculum, we have time to slow down and focus on essentials. Present topics and assess in a variety of ways which may possibly give students time to process and learn.

Bottom line, when aligning curriculum, planning lessons, and implement new ideas, make decisions that make sense for the students.

More to come...


  1. Nice recap. I've done one seminar with them and got a lot out of it. Looking forward to the other summaries :)

  2. Good stuff! (Do they have a website?)

  3. @FriendlyAtheist Anything you want to share from your seminar?

    @Sue Unfortunately they do not. Their email is pippensconsulting@aol.com and that is the only link I have to them.

  4. Glad you posted this, Elissa!

    I want to get rid of my desks and use tables as well. Although, I do like the desks that the Brain Break guy has in his classroom! The have separate chairs instead of one big unit. The desks are more L shaped, so I think they would fit together nicely. I think those desks and chairs would be so much nicer! Maybe there's a grant for that!