The Math Movement Taking Over Our Schools

The “Building Thinking Classrooms” approach defies research and common sense

Photo of students in front of a chalkboard covering their faces

What if I told you that lifeguards have a new method for teaching toddlers how to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a swimming pool without supervision, in hopes that they will learn from their productive struggle? Or that grandma’s cookbook would be thrown out because of its limiting step-by-step approach to baking a pie? Or that 16-year-olds should discover how to drive from their peers or, better still, on their own?

For most people, teaching young people skills in this way would seem foolish, counterproductive, even disastrous. However, educators nationwide are adopting similar “figure it out” approaches to teaching students mathematics. Increasingly, school curriculums are getting swept away by a movement that is determined to teach math in a way that is antithetical to research and common sense.


The Movement

Often called discovery, experiential, or inquiry-based learning, this constructivist approach believes in student-centered learning where the teacher’s role is minimized, and students “regulate their own activity while exploring a prompt.”

As a veteran teacher, I’ve been exposed to a variety of these pedagogical approaches during countless trainings and in various readings. Many colleges of education, curriculum publishers, and school leaders have been pushing these practices on teachers for years. Yet in the last few years, this approach seems to have gained momentum in the teaching of mathematics like never before.

At the beginning of the school year, a math specialist and former teacher at my school introduced me to a new book by a Canadian math professor, Peter Liljedahl, called “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics”. Already skeptical about the fad practices that come and go in education, after reading the 14 practices outlined in Liljedahl’s book, I declined participation in our school’s book club of math teachers who were reading the book and implementing its ideas. In conducting more research about the book and discussing it with educators left and right, I soon realized that the discovery learning practices it advocates were not a fad—they are a widespread movement across math classrooms that is here to stay.

The Building Thinking Classrooms movement is hard to escape in math educator circles. Its Facebook page has 57,000 members, and it would be rare to find a math department in America that hasn’t been touched by it. At a recent conference for math teachers, I watched presentation after presentation cite it, listened as speakers begged the audience to buy it, and heard it discussed reverently by teachers from Texas to L.A. to New York.


Flaws in the Movement

Most educators touting Building Thinking Classrooms or other math pedagogies that espouse similar constructivist approaches—like that of Jo Boaler, whose ideas shaped the math framework that was recently adopted by the state of California—mean well. Yet, similar to those who mistakenly believed in the ineffective whole language and balanced literacy approaches to reading instruction, these math educators are embracing instructional practices that may feel good but don’t work.

Commonsense reasoning alone would question the merits of a math instruction philosophy that believes: homework should not be required, students can take notes on what they want, practice should be done in groups while standing, students face each other rather than the teacher, and grading should be on arbitrary measures such as perseverance and collaboration. However, there is also a mountain of evidence against the principles underlying the claims of Building Thinking Classrooms and Jo Boaler.

A 2006 paper provides the most comprehensive review of the minimal-guidance instruction method advocated for by Building Thinking Classrooms. It concludes that “there is no body of research supporting the technique” and that, “not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge.” Alliances of grassroots educators have dispelled the method’s most popular myths, explaining why ideas like productive struggle are ineffective or why timed math tests are not anxiety-inducing but actually helpful. Parents have rallied against it, claiming classrooms are noisy, math is less enjoyable, students don’t learn from the expert (teacher) in the room, and that parents have had to pay for tutoring to make up for the lost learning. Critics have pointed out the weak research behind such philosophies again and again and stated why the philosophy itself is opposed to everything we know about cognitive science.


The Alternative, Direct Approach

There is another math pedagogy that you won’t see postered on the walls of teacher lounges or featured at the latest education conference. Direct instruction is a method in which teachers explicitly and systematically instruct students through tasks such as step-by-step procedures, modeling, teacher-guided practice, emphasizing foundational skills and fluency, and deliberately crafted lessons. Unlike the methods glamorized in Building Thinking Classrooms and Jo Boaler’s writings, direct instruction is backed by evidence.

The largest education experiment ever conducted, Project Follow Through, a decade-long research project pioneered by Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, concluded that students in schools that teach through direct instruction overwhelmingly made larger academic and social-emotional gains than students in schools using constructivist approaches. Likewise, some of the largest learning gains ever recorded in the developing world were made in a set of Kenyan schools that adopted direct instruction methods. For the past 50 years, no teaching method has been as rigorously researched and evaluated as direction instruction has. Each time, it has passed the test with flying colors.

Despite the resounding evidence backing direct instruction, its critics abound in the education field. When a popular and effective “I do, we do, you do” teaching strategy was brought up during a presentation I attended, the educator next to me scribbled in her notes “doo doo method,” demonstrating her distaste with the modeling and guided practice technique typical of direct instruction. Critics of direct instruction claim that it’s too teacher centered, takes away creativity in the classroom, and prioritizes having students learn passively at their desks and memorize facts. These myths are largely untrue but serve as a blockade, dissuading and preventing educators from learning about and implementing the most research-based way to teach math.

Critics of direct instruction have been all too successful in selling their alternative vision of teaching math. If we continue to allow their influence to spread, classroom by classroom, school by school, we’ll be repeating the same mistakes made by the well-intentioned reading educators who abandoned phonics years ago and left behind a generation of illiterate students.

Ryan Hooper is a middle school math and reading teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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