Challenges in elementary education

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The issues below are the ones identified after speaking with my colleagues in a high-poverty rural school. Many of the same themes that were previously discussed keep recurring; mainly that our students are powerless and that these foundational understandings are ways to empower them. I will continue to gather information "from the trenches' for you to ponder.

Thank you again so much!

  1. The Digital Divide. The gap between those with access to capital have access to information which gives them power. Those without access to capital have less access to information which in turns leads to diminished power. Resource-strapped schools would be very interested in some sort of low-cost, open-source device that could connect students to the internet without relying on the big multi-national, profit-driven corporations.
  1. Math. The Common Core standards [[1]] are designed to deeply impact the way math is taught in our country, ideally bringing our students to a point where they are more competitive globally.
    1. Consistent with the Common Core emphasis on Counting and Cardinality in the early grades and Number and Operations in Base 10 throughout K-5, we find that our struggling students lack a deep understanding of quantity. Numbers are not strongly connected to "amounts" of anything real. This, in turn, affects their ability to understand groupings, including 10. Because they still see numbers as unrelated to quantities, they do not organize the numbers into any sort of a structure. The idea of "group," 10 or otherwise, is lost.
    2. The grouping issues become more pronounced in the later grades, beginning in grade 3, when students are asked to work in fractions. This shows up most strikingly when students are asked to work with equivalencies and set models of fractions.
    3. Geometry: many of the relationships in geometric logic are lost (e.g., quadrilateral classifications, types of triangles, number of diagonals in a polygon), reduced to lines on paper.
  1. Reading. The Common Core standards for reading [[2]] focus deeply on content-area reading as opposed to fictional literature. Reading as a "skill" is the integration of several different brain processes, including word knowledge, meaning/language knowledge, and the ability to self-monitor the combination of word and meaning/language knowledge.
    1. Word knowledge is a barrier for many of our students. The language they hear in their communities is not the same academic language that they are expected to know and use in school. Many of our students are able to decode the words, but they lack the experiences or the knowledge of word roots/affixes to make sense of the word.
    2. Some of our students have difficulties with visual memory. They struggle to recall words they have seen and should know, diverting energy away from the focus on making sense of the text.
    3. Inference is another issue for our students. They are not able to use text to "read between the lines."
    4. On a related note, students who are language learners or who have other reading concerns have a "read-aloud" accommodation on math and science tests. The theory behind read-aloud is that students will be able to show their knowledge if someone reads the test to them. However, they lack the same control over their testing that is afforded to other, language-proficient students in that they must wait for me to read the problem; they must wait for other students to finish working on it before we can move on, and they have to ask me directly to reread anything.
  1. Science. Studies point back, time and again, to physical science as the weakest area in terms of teacher preparation and, consequently, student achievement. Students (and teachers) persist in Aristotelian views of the world. Anything that helps counteract those deeply, widely held misconceptions would be important.
  1. Social Studies. Our students have very small worlds, and not in a "the globe is shrinking" way. Raleigh is the big city to many; they struggle with the idea that there are places NOT part of the United States. Map skills are practically non-existent.

other comments

I was thinking last night/this morning about the kinds of mathematical teaching tools we currently use in elementary ed, given that much of the conversation last night revolved around mathematics. Common items include:

  • counters. Students in grades K-1 count everything, all the time.
  • Unifix cubes. Students use these to count, measure, add and subtract. Students will frequently build "trains" of 10 cubes using 2 different colors, sets of 5 at a time to build understandings of 5 and 10 as benchmarks.
  • snap cubes. These are like Unifix cubes, but they are able to be combined in multiple directions, allowing students to build cubes or other shapes. They can also be used for addition and subtraction and have more uses with area/perimeter/volume.
  • Pattern blocks. Used for a variety of applications, including shape names, patterning, fractions and operations.
  • Base 10 blocks. Apparently, when these were originally developed, there were blocks to model bases 2-10. Only the 10 blocks seem to be in production still, but I would love to get my hands on other bases. Used mainly to teach place value.
  • Rulers, compasses, and protractors. Used to teach measurement.

The math tools that are currently lacking have to do with power structures (such as multi-base blocks mentioned). Also, hex bugs are popular. So, I am thinking of something that has to do with hex bug idea and "unitizing" (making units and units of units) in math. See if any of these manipulatives inspire:

Places kids get hung up in foundational mathematics:

  • place value (think more grouping/regrouping than "names of places")
  • subtraction
  • division
  • fractions
  • geometric logic, particularly with area/perimeter, transformations, and relationships among geometric figures

Thank you for taking on this challenge! Hope this is helpful!