What Your Brain Looks Like While Doing Math

brain scanA short time ago, the NY Times put out a fascinating story with pictures of scans showing what happens in the brain when solving a math problem.  They indicated four distinct steps: encoding (downloading), planning (strategizing), solving (performing the math), and responding (typing out an answer)


The steps themselves should come as no surprise to anyone who has taught math. Our lead instructor, Elayn Martin-Gay, has been teaching these steps in our award winning videos for over 20 years.  Science is just starting to describe what great teachers have known for decades and probably centuries.  I would like to see what the brain looks like during the fifth important step: checking the answer.


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A Decade of Research on Math Instruction

Exploration_Multiplying-with-Two-Digit-FactorsEducation Week just released a highly informative article summarizing what has been learned from a decade of federally funded research into math instruction.

I enjoyed reviewing these findings again. The research has been very advantageous.  At Ascend Education, we developed 80 new math lessons over the past two years taking advantage of these findings bringing our total objective count to over 600. Much of the research strongly supports the use of the hands-on Explorations found in Ascend Math. In addition, the research findings below are supported in the newly constructed Compasses (Teacher Guides) for the Explorations.

“Using gestures and physical movement can help students better understand math concepts. For example, teachers [can use] gestures to simulate actions, such as placing their arm at different angles to simulate the action of altering the slope of a line,” says the report.

You’ll find this excellent article at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2016/07/research_on_math_teaching_what_weve_learned.html

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The Value of Inquiry Based Teacher Guides

I just read an interesting article from Education Week, “Study: Give Weak Teachers Good Lesson Plans instead of Professional Development.”  The study found that the use of inquiry based lesson plans had an effect on learning “about the same as moving from an average-performing teacher to one at the 80th percentile.” I might take some issue with their contention that inquiry based lesson plans are most helpful to weak teachers.  In my experience, most if not all teachers can improve with better lesson plans.


I found the timing of this article serendipitous.  You see, Ascend Math has just introduced forty new Compasses (Teacher Guides for Ascend Math Explorations). Compasses direct teachers on how to best use the inquiry based Explorations found in Ascend Math. They are perfect as a group instruction and/or blended learning resource providing questions to check for understanding, knowledge of vocabulary, as well as additional hands on activities.

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Strategies for Helping ELL Learners

I just reviewed an interesting article regarding new instructional strategies to promote greater academic success among students not yet proficient in English.  The strategies are being employed in Fresno, CA.  Essentially, they get students talking to each other in pairs, rather than just listening to the teacher. It works because the students are interacting (actually practicing) with the language.  Fresno was ahead of the state in helping students become English proficient last year, with 18 percent achieving that goal in the district, compared to 11 percent statewide.


This article reminds me of a strategy employed in several Ascend Math schools with ELL learners. All the instructional content in Ascend Math is captioned in Spanish.  However, teachers have told us that their Spanish speaking students like to put the English captions on to help them learn English while learning math.  Then, they speak along with the video instructor, practicing their English while learning math.

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Three Rules for Providing Better Instructional Videos

student-experience-videoA recent article from KQED News reported the value of using videos to teach math concepts.  Here is quote from that article:

“Getting students excited and authentically curious about a math task takes more than presenting a word problem. Some teachers are finding that a short, high-interest video or other piece of media that raises questions in kids’ minds is the best way to prime them to dive deeply into problem solving.”

We agree, but in order for video lessons to be of high-interest to students and effective it needs to be done correctly. As the creators of more than 700 award winning instructional videos here are three rules we follow,

  1. Video lessons should be given only by master teachers, not amateurs or performers.
  2. Video lessons should provide the student with more than one way to understand the lesson.
  3. Video lessons should be hands on and interactive. Today’s students are used to getting immediate feedback from their video games.  They expect to take an active part.


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ESSA changes need not be a concern

ESSAEducation Week and others have been reporting concerns that the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will no longer accept super subgroups in place of individual subgroups of students for accountability purposes.

Under the 2001 NCLB law, the federal government created a system that held all states accountable on two measures—the number of students who tested “proficient” in math and reading each year. However, the Department of Education authorized waivers that allowed states to lump some of their subgroups—like their 25% lowest-income students, students with special needs, and ELLs, for example—together into more broadly labeled categories such as “disadvantaged students.”   These “super subgroups” enabled states to release more data about how their high-needs students were doing, since they now had larger sample sizes of students and could more easily avoid concerns about violating student privacy, but it also obscured performance of specific subsets within that larger group.

This change in reporting need not be a concern if schools and districts can only come to understand that under-performing students need to work on their individual skill gaps.  Each student is unique.  Although they can be assessed and the results reported in groups, they must receive individual instruction.


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Report: Elementary School Teachers Still Struggling with Common Core

common core 2The Hechinger Report recently published an article describing the challenges many Elementary School teachers still face teaching Common Core math objectives. They conclude: “If the Common Core is to improve the math education of U.S. students as intended, experts agree that teachers who are meant to get students excited about math and become proficient in its basic concepts need more help and support.”

I concur. A recent study of pre-assessment results by Ascend Education shows that elementary students struggle with the new conceptual objectives more than any other objectives.  More than 16% of grade 2 objectives are conceptual. However, data show that 30% of the grade 2 objectives that 5th graders least often understand are conceptual.  These skill gaps follow them because a) they’re challenging for students and b) they are challenging for teachers to teach.

Elementary school teachers have so much on their plate. They need help providing appropriate instruction to students not understanding the new objectives.  Support programs need to offer improved instruction for the conceptual objectives found in common core and other revised state standards.  That’s why we added more than 60 new learning objectives written to the Common Core and rigorous state standards and updated many others.


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Study shows Growing Need for Individual Study to Fill Skill Gaps

A couple of weeks ago, a new analysis of reading and math test score data was released by Stanford CEPA (Center for Educational Policy Analysis).  If you didn’t hear about it or get the chance to read the excellent New York Times article on the subject you really should.

CEPA mapThe analysis confirms just how much socioeconomic conditions matter to academic achievement.  Students (particularly minority students) from areas with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of four grade levels below children in the richest districts. Far too often, students from poorer neighborhoods have math skill gaps two or more grade levels below their current grade.

I’ve said this before and will continue to say it. These students cannot successfully begin to compete with their peers without an individual study plan that focuses only on their skill gaps.  Without a plan that guides them through their unique study path at each grade level they will continue to fall further and further behind.

According to the NY Times article, “The study found that by contrast, the communities with narrow achievement gaps tend to be those in which there are very few black or Hispanic children, or places like Detroit or Buffalo, where all students are so poor that minorities and whites perform equally badly on standardized tests.” Many rural areas are affected in the same way.  But this simply means that the need for individual study is even more pronounced.

There is hope.  Schools that use a product like Ascend Math to assess individual student skill gaps and  guide each student to successfully complete their unique gaps at each grade level are seeing tremendous improvement.  http://ascendmath.com/gold_2016.html

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2016 Gold Medal Honors 17 Exceptional Schools

Gold medalThis year, Ascend Math is honoring 17 Gold Medal schools whose math intervention efforts have brought about a turnaround at their schools.

The Ascend Math Gold Medal Award was established in 2010 to honor the schools or districts that demonstrate a dedication to ensuring that all students become successful at math. The Gold Medal nominees all used Ascend Math for math intervention, enhancement or blended learning.

Educators at the seventeen Gold Medal schools demonstrated exceptional progress in helping students succeed in math. This is the strongest group of nominated schools we have seen yet.  We are extremely proud of what these educators have accomplished this year.

Taylor County Elementary School, Taylor, FL, Worth County Elementary School, Sylvester, GA, Delta Middle School, Delta, OH, and Fair Park High School in Shreveport, LA were named the Gold Medal Leaders for 2016.

In addition, Bibb County Schools, Macon, GA was named the Gold Medal District of the Year.  Allendale Association, Lake Villa, IL will receive the President’s Choice Award.

You can see all the Gold Medalist Schools and learn of their exceptional results at  http://ascendmath.com/gold_2016.html.

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NY Times article discusses engagement and gamification

base camp 2Last week, the New York Times ran an article on Kahoot, an online quiz system from Norway being played in some schools.  The article is well worth reading for its smart discussion of “engagement” and “gamification.”

These are two subjects near and dear to my heart.  The article, by NY Times reporter Natasha Singer, also made mention of Ascend Math.

“Readers who attended school in the pre-laptop era may have played classroom games like multiplication bingo, an offline exercise in which students win acclaim or prizes for being the quickest to remember their times tables. Today, students may use Ascend Math, a learning app that rewards students who complete a level by letting them play short video games.”

NY Times, April 16, 2016  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/technology/kahoot-app-brings-urgency-of-a-quiz-show-to-the-classroom.html?_r=

Those of you who have been reading my blog posts are likely aware of Base Camp, the newest addition to Ascend Math.  Ascend Math Base Camp is a virtual world offering inventive games and activities.  It was created in response to teachers who told us that their students wanted an occasional fun break from the lessons in Ascend Math. An evolving formula built into Ascend, including time on task and the passing of assessments, units, and levels determines when students can access Base Camp. Students understand quickly that they must earn their time in Base Camp. Time in Base Camp is held to three minute intervals so as not to detract from time needed learning in Ascend.

Base Camp does fit the mold of gamification but it is held in reserve as a reward for student’s hard work and progress in filling math skill gaps.  Gamification is not necessary to achieve student engagement.

In a world of Kahoots and cartoon learning software it can be easy to get confused. While games can be engaging, what is important is to make actual measurable learning engaging as well.  Making lessons interactive and providing a hands-on understanding of a given objective can and does make learning math engaging.  Games can be like a little treat after a good meal, but it’s the learning that provides the nourishment they need.

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