Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mathematical Practice

Mathematical Practice

As I mentioned previously, the State of Georgia has adopted the mathematics standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. These Standards will become the new state standards starting in the school year 2012-13. So, in this blog, I will try to discuss the specific CCSS standards and compare/contrast with the current GPS.

In the GPS, there are two sets of standards: content standards and process standards. The process standards are the five standards that are discussed at the end of each grade and relate directly to the process standards discussed in the NCTM Standards - Problem Solving, Reasoning, Connection, Communication, and Representation. The CCSS mathematics standards, in contrast, include a set of standards on mathematical practice. According to the CCSS, mathematical practice is a variety of "expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students," and the eight expertise are:
1. make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
2. reason abstractly and quantitatively
3. construct viable arguments and critique reasoning of others
4. model with mathematics
5. use appropriate tools strategically
6. attend to precision
7. look for and make use of structures
8. look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

Some of the items in this list sound very similar to the current GPS process standards while others appear to be new and different. For example, the idea of persevering to solve problems is not explicitly stated in the current GPS, but if students were to learn from problem solving, it is essential that students persevere. On the other hands, some of the current GPS process standards are much more obviously related to the eight expertise while others may appear to be forgotten. However, a more detailed look at the mathematical practice does suggest that even those standards are still important. For example, the connection standards seem to be absent from the list of mathematical practice. However, the description of "modeling with mathematics" include the following:
Mathematically proficient students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions. They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.
These descriptions of "mathematically proficient" students clearly suggest students must be able to connect their understanding of mathematics to things both within and outside of mathematics, and both within and outside of classrooms.

One of the main concern as we move forward with the CCSS is that these standards on mathematical proficiency will receive less attention just as the process standards of the current GPS do. In some ways, it is understandable as it is rather difficult to imagine these mathematical practice standards in action. Moreover, it is not quite clear how these standards will be assessed. Thus, it is natural for some teachers to focus on things that will be assessed. The authors of the CCSS, however, offers a suggestion that can guide us as we grapple with the content standards:
Expectations that begin with the word “understand” are often especially good opportunities to connect the practices to the content. Students who lack understanding of a topic may rely on procedures too heavily. ... In short, a lack of understanding effectively prevents a student from engaging in the mathematical practices.
In this respect, those content standards which set an expectation of understanding are potential “points of intersection” between the Standards for Mathematical Content and the Standards for Mathematical Practice. These points of intersection are intended to be weighted toward central and generative concepts in the school mathematics curriculum that most merit the time, resources, innovative energies, and focus necessary to qualitatively improve the curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, and student achievement in mathematics.

As I continue discussing the specific standards, I will try to keep this suggestion in mind. I would also like to encourage you to keep thinking about the mathematical practice standards as we go through this time of transition.

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Elaboration of Georgia Performance Standards by Tad Watanabe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.