Students Reflect on Math Department
by Aeshna Chandra on Friday, November 20th, 2015
The Math Department, nestled on the second and fourth floors of Ware Hall, is famed among students for two reasons: first, the notoriously long hike up the stairs to its headquarters, and second, its eclectic approach to teaching mathematics. According to the Math Department’s section on the Milton Academy website, “the Mathematics Department is committed to providing outstanding teaching but it acknowledges that excellence does not require conformity to a single model of teaching.” Twenty-one math teachers teach 18 different courses, not including the four programming classes.
Jackie Bonenfant, Academic Dean, former Math Department Chair, and member of the department since 1981, says, “When I came to Milton, the department was still pretty traditional….There was this sort of period in the department’s history, maybe late ‘80s to early ‘90s where we had a different track in Precalculus and Calculus that we called modeling applications and one more focused on basic math skills, like adding fractions and the like. And then we got to the point where both strands came together [to create the current track most students take] and helped students to see what math is good for, at school and in the real world.”
The current department philosophy can perhaps be best summarized by its focus on exploration, both in style of teaching and in classroom learning. Members of the department believe that “while deductive methods require careful instruction, inductive thinking is best learned when the teacher resists the temptation to explain and instead encourages the student to experiment and invent.” The department’s philosophy emphasizes its focus on student investigation, not lecturing, as the driving force behind classroom learning.
A November 17th Measure poll, however, revealed that out of 107 respondents, 50.47% of students believed that out of all academic departments, the Math Department “least effectively communicates lessons to all students.” In addition, students were asked to rate departments between 1 (not effectively at all) and 5 (super effectively), and the Math Department scored a below-average 2.79. The poll was created and issued as a follow up to a November 2nd poll that questioned which of Milton’s academic departments was “strongest” and which was “weakest.” The lack of specificity in the first poll’s questions, the vague basis for how responses should be judged, the immense volunteer bias, and the lack of nuance in the answers created an unscientific poll that, while useful in prompting more investigation, signified little about students’ actual opinions of the Math Department. With the help of the Math Department, the new poll eliminated volunteer bias by randomly choosing students from all four classes, by asking specifically for responses influenced only by a student’s own experience, and by creating questions that targeted each department’s philosophy on teaching style, and compared all departments as well as focused on each department individually.
The new poll showed that 50.5 percent of respondents ranked the Math Department as the least effective at communicating lessons to all students. Jessie Smith (III), now in her second year of Milton math, says, “While I understand that learning on your own can definitely benefit you, I think teachers need to be more focused on teaching the material to the students and have them do a lot to build on that and explore outside of class instead of having students teach themselves in the first place.” Scott Crawshaw (III), now in Honors Algebra 2 and Intro to Programming, also believes that department philosophy focuses on “experience as opposed to memorization.”
Annie Auguste (III) says, “I think it’s interesting that they use reverse classroom, but I wish they made it clear before the class started that that’s what was happening.”
According to the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, reverse classroom, also known as “flipped learning,” is “a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”
“In general, I think that people are trying to give students room to take ownership of their own learning and to do some exploration and investigation,” says Heather Sugrue, Chair of the Math Department since September 2012, when the current seniors were entering the ninth grade. In 2013, under Ms. Sugrue, the department sent out a survey to alumni going out 10 years and students—current juniors and seniors and the Classes of ‘14 and ‘15—to assess reactions to department performance.
Ms. Sugrue offers The Geometer’s Sketchpad, which all Geometry classes use, as an example of students’ exploration in and outside of class. According to Dynamic Geometry, the company behind Sketchpad, the award-winning program “acts both as an environment for student exploration and as a tool for curricular activity design and development.”
“When a teacher stands at the board and says, ‘This is how you solve a quadratic equation by factoring: now, go do 20 for homework,’ it’s not good teaching. What good is that?” Ms. Bonenfant says.
Some students, such as Marshall Sloane (II), currently in Honors Precalculus and a former student in Honors Geometry, appreciate the varied approaches of the Math Department. Marshall says that one thing the math department does well is “provide opportunities to explore areas of interest.”
Seth Gordon (IV) disagrees, saying of the Geometry curriculum, “I think they could have more interesting projects. The week of coding we did [in his Geometry class]…was interesting, but some of the homework is just ‘find this angle’ or ‘find that angle.’”
“My math teacher says, ‘Explore on Desmos,’ or ‘Explore this, explore that.’ It would be nice to have a little bit more of a clear understanding of what we actually have to do,” says Tanay Srivastava (IV), who is in Honors Precalculus, a course taken by predominantly juniors.
Ms. Sugrue says, “I have a goal that, by the time someone finishes math at Milton, we have improved and raised the bar on their interest in math…it might not become their favorite subject but they’ve been exposed to things and ideas that intrigue them.”
Nevertheless, perhaps the focus on exploration and on discovering math ideas by oneself rather than by memorizing the formulas in a textbook hinders the effective communication between student and teacher. After all, there must be a reason that half the school believes math to be the least effective department in teaching lessons.
Cale McCormick, now in Group Theory, states, “[The department] definitely should have a more standard curriculum and some more, maybe, training on how teachers should teach, because they’re all Ph.D’s in math but not Ph.D’s in teaching.”
“[The math teachers] are all very passionate about the subject and they know what they’re doing, but they forget that, quite frankly, that not every student is as passionate about math and that not every student is taking the class to be the next math teacher,” says Gabriella Etoniru (I), who has taken four regular math classes and Intro to Programming. “They do this thing where they challenge the student to do their own thing in the self-discovery process, and I end up a) either having to go on Khan Academy to teach myself or b) learning the material with other students.”
Juliana Rogoff (I), currently in Honors Calculus and an independent study in Programming, says, “I’ve had a really good experience in [the math department], but [the teaching style] is definitely tailored to a kind of student who can learn by themselves, more so than in a group environment—at least, that’s been my experience in Honors classes. Learning things on your own…has been fine for me, but it is not ideal for all students.”
Charlie Rose Guscott (I), after four years in the Math department, speaking about teachers’ reactions to different learning styles, says, “I think they could have more patience with people. I feel that when someone isn’t getting something, it’s not that they’re not trying, it’s just that they don’t understand each and every thing, and they’re taking it at a different pace than everyone else.”
Wayne Harding (II), Cale, Tanay, Seth, Madison Lynch (III), Scott, and Jacquie Golden (II) agree that math teachers are more helpful one-on-one than in class and that all teachers explain answers well and thoroughly. Charlie Rose, Steven Walker (III), Annie, Gabriella, and Marshall disagree and believe that the math department must work on answering questions in a straightforward manner and providing answers once students have tried to figure it out alone once.
Ms. Bonenfant says, “I think what’s really important is to be able to respond to the kids in the room and to help those kids have a good experience in math. She states, “I think at Milton we naturally are known as a school that’s strong in the humanities, and I think we’re strong across the board…when that’s how we talk about ourself, then kids who are attracted to Milton are kids who are strong in the humanities…but we should always be looking at ourselves and asking what we can be doing better. I certainly hope and know that teachers are doing this.”
The Measure poll results provide food for thought to Math department and can perhaps serve as a follow-up of sorts to the extensive all-school survey conducted in 2013. The department has much to be happy about as well as much to fix. Ravi Rahman (I), who took B/C Calculus as a freshman, sums up his experience with Milton academics, saying, “[All the departments] are good. It’s just a relative scale.”
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=7457