Measuring the difference

Teachers say new curriculum multiplies learning

Teaming up educators to formulate the best teaching methods has proven so successful that school officials are applying a similar strategy to students to formulate the best learning methods.

The Moffat County School District adopted a new math curriculum last year that radically changed how students are taught, breaking away from 100 years of teaching "how" to focus on teaching "why."

Gone are rows of individual desks. They've been replaced with round tables surrounded by four or five chairs.

"By working in groups, we're hoping they learn the concept instead of just me just showing the procedure and telling them how to do it," seventh-grade math teacher Nancy McCabe said. "They learn from each other and discover things."

Students don't just determine the circumference by multiplying its diameter by pi, or 3.14. They learn what pi is and why it's used in figuring circumference.

Another big difference, McCabe said, is that learning is more active than passive. Students learn how to calculate the difference between positive and negative numbers using "integer tiles" -- something that helps them visualize the concept.

The curriculum comes with many such "toys." Students work with dice, number tiles, games and other "manipulatives," which are physical objects that help students visualize relationships and applications.

Middle school students spent one class period outside learning to plot coordinates by becoming the coordinates.

One of the biggest changes is that the curriculum focuses on knowledge retention. Different than moving from one concept to another, "spiraling" continually integrates what students learned previously into what they're learning now.

"This doesn't allow students to forget a concept," math teacher Deborah Yoast said. "Math is like reading, you've got to have a strong foundation to move forward."

Yoast was part of a math task force that spent three years evaluating several curriculums before choosing this one.

"It was a long process," she said. "We knew what standards we had to teach, but we had to find the right process. It wasn't what we were teaching but how we were teaching that needed to change."

Introducing such a change was difficult.

Teachers underwent hours of training, some students had trouble adapting to working as a group and some parents complained that what the school is teaching isn't math.

The curriculum was adopted for grades seven through 12.

Some math teachers in other grades are integrating portions of the concept into their classrooms, but it's not universal, Yoast said.

The changes have made a difference. This year's ninth-graders, who tested the new curriculum as eighth-graders, posted a 19 percent decline on math test scores from grades five to seven. The students showed a 12 percent increase from their seventh- to eighth-grade year.

The curriculum isn't new to the Moffat County School District. It was introduced in 1990 but was considered so radical that it took years for schools to begin to consider it seriously. California schools were the first to adopt the new curriculum, which is now sweeping its way east and has been implemented in many of Colorado's Eastern Slope schools.

Understanding mathematics, at every level, requires student engagement, according to the National Science Foundation.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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