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More challenge, not less, turns kids onto math

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2000


William Johntz was casting about for ways to engage inner-city remedial students in math. Finally, it hit him: Give them harder material.

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The year was 1963. But the counterintuitive approach that the mathematician, psychologist, and math teacher set in motion during his lunch hours in Berkeley, Calif., is going strong four decades later.

The failure of all American students to excel at math, particularly at high levels, has become a top issue among US educators. But minority students are an even greater concern. According to the 1996 National Assessment for Educational Progress, 78 percent of black students and 68 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders scored below the basic level for math achievement, as opposed to 39 percent of white students.

Project SEED (Special Elementary Education for the Disadvantaged) is out to balance that equation - based on Mr. Johntz's hunch that such students connect far better with rigorous math than they do with the remedial fare they are often offered.

The Socratic method

Its approach has remained largely unchanged since its start. Mathematicians are recruited to teach algebra, geometry, and calculus to kids in Grades 3 to 8 in participating public schools. They're trained in what SEED officials call the "Socratic method" of teaching: rapid-fire delivery of a series of questions designed to stimulate student thought. In an ideal SEED lesson, the teacher poses between 140 and 150 questions, but never answers a single one. The students ultimately provide all the answers.

The class analyzes wrong answers as earnestly as correct ones, until everyone understands what works and why. In order to keep all engaged, every student is called on at least once during the lesson, although any student who isn't comfortable volunteering an answer may simply pass the question on to a classmate.

To keep things lively, the kids learn hand signals (a shake of the hands means "disagree" and a wave of the arms means "agree") so there is rarely a moment during class when the students are not physically participating in what's being said or put on the board.

SEED lessons have a crispness and energy that begins the moment the instructor steps in front of the blackboard and greets the students with the words, "Good morning [or afternoon], mathematicians." It carries on throughout the class as students are required to both use correct mathematical terms and demonstrate proper classroom etiquette when they provide answers, make comments, or ask questions.

Sixth-grader Aprile Reynolds, for example, has just spent the past 45 minutes engaged in a lively classroom discussion about the multiplication and division of exponents in algebraic equations. She's a student at an inner-city Philadelphia public middle school with test scores that sag well below the average. Her class is not a grouping of advanced students, but rather a mix of kids of all ability levels, including several classified as "special education" students.

Asked to sum up her feelings about algebra, Aprile shoots back: "Fun!"