The ‘Reading Science’ Wave Has Transformed Literacy Education: Can the Same Happen for Mathematics?

by Ryan Lee
Science of Math

For the majority of her professional life, Carrie Stark utilized interactive math games as a medium to captivate her students, believing that this would help them absorb foundational concepts like multiplication through experiential learning. While the activities were entertaining, the educational objectives were often not met.

Several years ago, Stark transitioned her teaching methodology after discovering an online resource dedicated to evidence-based methods in mathematics instruction, often termed as the ‘science of math.’

“The children enjoyed the games, but the games alone were insufficient for imparting mathematical understanding. Explicit instruction is indispensable,” explained Stark, who is a math educator in a suburban area near Kansas City.

As U.S. educational systems strive to improve math proficiency scores that have suffered during the pandemic, a faction of scholars is advocating for the adoption of empirically supported techniques for mathematics instruction. While this movement has fervent supporters, it is still emerging, especially when contrasted with the well-established, phonics-driven ‘science of reading’ that has revolutionized literacy education across the United States.

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Mathematics as a subject has not received comparable attention or funding, particularly beyond elementary education. Consequently, current methodologies in math instruction are less effective. The United States lags behind other economically advanced nations in math achievement, and there is a rising trend of high school graduates lacking fundamental math skills.

Proponents argue that instructional techniques grounded in robust quantitative research can remedy this, although these approaches are still being fine-tuned.

“It’s a burgeoning idea rather than an established movement,” said Matthew Burns, a professor of special education at the University of Missouri, who was among the scholars involved in the creation of a ‘Science of Math’ web resource aimed at educators.

What Constitutes the Science of Math?

There exists a scholarly debate concerning which evidence-based methods should be incorporated into the ‘science of math,’ but consensus has been reached on a few key principles.

Central among these is that math instruction must be methodical and explicit. Educators must provide coherent, precise guidelines and introduce novel concepts incrementally, all while building on previous knowledge. Such strategies have garnered support from a multitude of studies, most notably from the Institute of Education Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Education dedicated to evaluating educational practices.

This advice contrasts with educational models predicated on exploration or inquiry, where students independently discover principles with minimal guidance from instructors. There is ambiguity regarding which models are predominant in current educational settings.

Similar to the ‘science of reading,’ which underscores meticulous, explicit instruction in phonics, effective math instruction also demands specificity and clarity. Following the ascent of the ‘science of reading,’ 18 states have enacted legislation within three years to mandate the usage of evidence-based literacy instruction methods in classrooms.

Margie Howells, an elementary math educator in Wheeling, West Virginia, initiated her own investigation into best practices, particularly due to the paucity of resources for dyscalculia—a mathematical learning disorder. Upon learning about the emerging ‘science of math,’ she incorporated more explicit vocabulary and symbolism into her teaching.

“I’ve incorporated more rigorous instruction in mathematical terminology and symbolism to ensure that students internalize these concepts,” said Howells, who is in the process of developing a tutoring program based on scientific principles for students grappling with dyscalculia and other learning challenges.

The So-Called ‘Math Wars’

Instructional approaches to math either prioritize conceptual understanding or procedural skills. Over the years, conflicts between these differing pedagogical philosophies have been termed the ‘math wars.’ One of the salient tenets of the ‘science of math’ movement is the integration of both approaches.

“The harmonization of procedural and conceptual knowledge is essential,” stated Stark.

Stark now mentors her colleagues on research-backed strategies to help students who struggle with math—a task she felt ill-equipped for in her earlier years of teaching, when most available resources merely suggested different types of interactive games.

For a fifth-grade student experiencing difficulties with fractions, Stark re-introduced the concept of equivalent fractions, clarifying, for example, why two-fourths is synonymous with one-half.

“For the first time in our three-year instructional relationship, he expressed a deep understanding of the subject matter. It was a moment of genuine academic triumph for him,” Stark recounted.

Nonetheless, some academics question the movement’s heavy emphasis on algorithmic procedures and rote memorization. They argue that math is a field rich in creativity and logical reasoning.

“Mathematics is more than just algorithms; it’s a field that also demands creativity and logical reasoning,” said Nick Wasserman, a professor of math education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

However, proponents counter that proficiency in basic mathematical facts actually facilitates creative problem-solving by freeing cognitive resources. They assert that an educational framework that includes inquiry, creativity, and collaboration is vital for comprehensive student development.

“When we create this false dichotomy, we inadvertently foster division and misunderstanding. A balanced approach is vital,” said Elizabeth Hughes, a professor of special education at Penn State and a leading figure in the ‘science of math’ movement.

A Disproportionate Focus on Reading?

Although best practices are crucial, some skeptics question whether a ‘science of math’ exists in the same vein as it does for reading, primarily due to the smaller body of research on the subject.

“Reading is an area replete with a greater volume of rigorous, causative studies that correlate instructional techniques with student performance,” noted education researcher Tom Loveless.

To some, this reflects societal priorities and perhaps even a self-fulfilling prophecy, as many educators themselves grapple with math anxiety.

“If I were illiterate, I’d never admit it. Yet, many educators openly admit to struggling with math,” said Daniel Ansari, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Western University in Canada.

However, Ansari contends that the available research, although limited, could substantially benefit current pedagogical practices in math education.

“Despite the gaps, we have enough empirical evidence to inform effective classroom strategies,” Ansari concluded.

This report is a part of a collaborative effort by eight media organizations—known as the Education Reporting Collaborative—to examine the challenges facing mathematics education and spotlight solutions. Participating members include AL.com, The Big Big News, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

Financial support for the education reporting team at The Big Big News is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Editorial responsibility lies solely with The Associated Press.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Science of Math

What is the main focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the emerging concept known as the “science of math,” an evidence-based approach to teaching mathematics. It examines how this approach is being implemented and debated within American educational institutions, especially in the context of declining math scores.

How does the “science of math” differ from traditional or exploratory teaching methods?

The “science of math” emphasizes systematic and explicit instruction, wherein teachers give clear and precise directions and introduce new mathematical concepts in a structured manner. This is in contrast to exploratory or inquiry-based models where students discover concepts on their own with minimal guidance from teachers.

What challenges are faced by the “science of math” movement?

One of the main challenges is that the movement is still in its infancy and has not received as much attention or funding as the “science of reading.” Additionally, there’s debate among educators and researchers about which teaching practices should fall under the banner of the “science of math.”

How does the “science of math” compare to the “science of reading”?

The “science of reading” is more established and has inspired nationwide changes in literacy education. It too emphasizes explicit and systematic teaching methods. However, while 18 states have passed legislation mandating the use of evidence-based methods for reading, similar widespread mandates have not yet been established for math.

Are teachers receptive to this new approach?

The article indicates that some teachers, like Carrie Stark and Margie Howells, have found success in adopting more explicit teaching methods based on the “science of math.” However, the movement still faces skepticism and has not yet achieved widespread adoption.

Is there evidence to support the effectiveness of the “science of math”?

The Institute of Education Sciences, an arm of the U.S. Education Department, has endorsed the approach, highlighting dozens of studies that support the efficacy of systematic and explicit math instruction.

What are the societal implications of the less advanced state of research on math compared to reading?

The article suggests that the disparity in research between math and reading may reflect societal values, as well as teachers’ own anxieties and attitudes towards teaching math. Many elementary school teachers doubt their own ability to teach math effectively, which may be a contributing factor to the lack of advancement in this area.

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TeacherTom September 12, 2023 - 4:22 pm

Carrie Stark and Margie Howells are on point! i’ve tried switching up my approach in the classroom and it’s been a game changer. Explicit teaching really works, you guys.

PolicyWonk September 12, 2023 - 4:53 pm

Good to see this kind of journalism. If only policy makers would pay attention and actually implement some changes in the curriculum.

ParentPerspective September 12, 2023 - 6:35 pm

As a parent, im worried. My kid struggles with math and I dont see schools changing fast enough. What do we do in the meantime?

SkepticalSue September 12, 2023 - 8:08 pm

Science of Math, really? Sounds a bit like a buzzword to me. How can we say it’s a science when it’s still so new and not universally accepted?

ResearchRita September 12, 2023 - 10:32 pm

Solid piece but it’s missing the international context. How are other countries approaching this? we’re lagging behind and we need all the help we can get.

MathGeek September 13, 2023 - 4:47 am

Man, the article nails it. Math should be creative, but you also need to know the fundamentals. I remember hating timed tests, but now I see why they’re useful.

EducationMaven September 13, 2023 - 4:59 am

Very interesting article, but where’s the funding for all this research, huh? we keep hearing about poor math scores but not seeing a lot of investment to actually fix it.

JohnSmith42 September 13, 2023 - 2:46 pm

Wow, never thought I’d see the day when teaching math became a science of its own. Makes me wonder what I missed out on back in school. Like, did I really have to learn through trial and error?


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