There is a lot of research in education. People literally devote their lives to it. Most of those people have not spent many days in the trenches with children, or at least that part of their lives was years ago. I trust educational research, and I think it is important. But I also remember to take it with a grain of salt, as they say, keeping in mind that there is not a one-size-fit for every classroom.
I was more interested in the research when I first started doing things that deviated from the cultural norms in the buildings where I have taught. When I was trying out Running Records, for example, I had seen other, alternative assessment approaches and knew people who were absolutely committed to using them. Even though Running Records made sense to me as an assessment tool, and even though I wasn’t using them with nearly as much proficiency as I do now, I just felt in my teacher heart of hearts this form of assessment was going to give me so much more than a score that I could turn into a letter grade on a report card. And I read Marie Clay’s book and all the research about Running Records that I could find.
Early in the week when a fellow teacher jumped onto the #notabookstudy hashtag and “attacked” (yes, I know that’s an exaggeration, but it sounds so dramatic!) the notion of “project based learning” in math, and it’s effectiveness, I was offended. “How dare she attack Cathy Fosnot and her work!” I thought. “I ❤ Cathy Fosnot!” She tagged in a friend (I am going to be honest here and say I don’t actually know what their relationship might be) who had, like Cathy, started his own business focused on encouraging teachers to read actual research and use that as a basis for classroom practice. The two of them carried on for the day, and you can probably pick up the pieces by going back through the Twitter feed if you are so inclined. If you are not, the upshot of it all was they didn’t feel PBL belongs in math, that there isn’t any research to back it up and that EQAO scores continue to decline even though more teachers are moving away from lecturing in classrooms.
There are about 12 different topics I could write about there, not the least of which is “THE WORLD SHOULD NOT BE DRIVEN BY EQAO PERFORMANCE!”
So I started looking for some research. I found a few articles, but was honestly too busy teaching to really spend a lot of time on it. I’m glad for that. I will probably spend a bit of time looking for a few things. But, at the end of the day, I decided that my teacher heart is trying to tell me something again.
I have used the Fosnot math units for many years. I have also used similar units from Marilyn Burns, and of course Super Source. There is always a mix of stuff across the school year in my classroom, and I try to be really responsive to student interests (because it helps with setting context) and student ability. I feel very committed to using inquiry based math lessons. I might not have a stack of research articles to support it all, but I know it works because I have seen it work.
Many years ago, I had a university level math course. It was calculus and yes, I just had to spend a full minute trying to remember that word because calculus hasn’t really been a part of my life since. My professor was a disaster. He knew everything about calculus and couldn’t understand why it was hard for people like me. He explained things one way, and that’s it. But there was a woman who sat next to me and we started talking about the math. I will admit that sometimes we talked during his long lectures, trying to make sense of what he was saying and showing. She and I learned more calculus from those conversations than either of us learned from the lectures. I could say the same about my statistics professor who insisted that we use his methods and even the math majors who were taking the class couldn’t figure out what he was talking about half the time. Thank goodness for open book tests!
Over the years, I have watched the proverbial light switch turn on for children in my class as they worked their way through project based learning math units.
I feel confident that there is research to support project based learning in math, and probably specific research that supports the work of Cathy Fosnot. Do I need to read it right now? Nope. I don’t. It does not bother me that John Hattie originally did his work with university medical students and now I am using it with 7 and 8 year olds cause I have seen it work.
Don’t get me wrong…I don’t think we can blindly accept everything that the Ministry or the Board of Ed throws our way. But when people I know and trust encourage me to try something they have researched and are recommending, I try not to resist it. I give it a try for myself and take it from there. That’s the only research that I need most of the time.