Breaking Through the Math Ceiling: Exploring Female Achievement in Mathematics

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Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

While I have shared many of my thoughts and opinions on Finnish Education systems, I have not, as yet, shared my actual research. I did not think it was finished or perfect and so I kept the project to myself. My four short months in Finland were not suitable to produce the type of research I wanted, but it was enough to give me an overall picture of the problem, which you can explore by reading my report as posted above.

I went to Finland with the intent of studying female achievement in mathematics after discovering that Finland is one of the few countries where the girls outscored the boys in mathematics. Finland’s girls especially excelled in PISA’s problem-solving category. They performed much higher in this category than even Sweden their “sister” nation to the west. As a female math teacher this information intrigued me. I wanted to know what Finland was doing to promote female achievement in mathematics and problem solving.The above and adjacent link is the PDF of my research report. Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

The purpose of this Fulbright Grant was to give girls the confidence in their abilities to think and express themselves mathematically. My objective was to study the cause of the widespread gender disparity in mathematics education, learn best teaching practices from Finland, a country internationally acclaimed for supporting female development in mathematics, and create a stateside program that empowers and supports girls and teachers within the mathematics field.

My time in Helsinki was spent studying how Finland’s school systems teach and train young girls and their teachers to be confident in mathematics. One of the main reasons girls struggle with mathematics is due to their crippling fear of being wrong. This hesitancy to take risks is a cultural issue that is fueled by certain educational practices. I elaborate on this psychological phenomenon in more detail in the report.

I also discovered that girls learn to have a negative attitude towards the subject from parents and sometimes even teachers who themselves suffer from math anxiety.   I desired to learn how to  create a positive learning environment that allows girls to feel safe, work together, take risks, and learn in a way that will empower them to think mathematically.

I believe that lack of confidence in mathematical ability is the biggest obstacle to female success in the mathematics classroom. I had several theories as to how Finland combated this fear and disdain for mathematics. My hypothesis was that it was a combination of classroom environment, cultural biases, learned math anxiety and teacher training that contributed to Finland’s success in promoting female achievement.

I discovered that one of the largest contributing factors to student attitude  towards mathematics was a teacher’s own opinions, attitude toward and ability in mathematics. Female students are more perceptive and aware of others feelings and attitudes.  Many female students have been trained to believe that math is difficult,tricky and obstinately rigid.  Female students are not taught to think of math as the beautiful, fluid and flexible science that artfully and creatively explains the world around us. 

Finland has a lot of great things going for its education system. It provides fair equitable education to all students. They also do not over stress their students and have truly mastered the concept of “less is more” which I wrote about earlier. They are able to achieve great things with fewer formal lessons and classes.   Their kids are not over worked to the point of exhaustion or surrender.   Finland has trained its students to be independent self-motivated individuals.

However, when discussing female achievement in mathematics, I am not sure that Finland has the overall answer.   While Finland’s low stress, slow paced classroom environments give girls overall less anxiety and apprehension towards the subject, I do not think they are actually out performing highly motivated U.S. Students. I suspect that the Law of averages is allowing Finnish students to stay on top of PISA scores, which I have explained in my blog post about The Three Real Reasons for Finland’s Success.   Everyone in Finland does well- a little bit above average.  Yet very few do extremely well (by American standards anyway).  On the flip side very few fail either. Finland has found a nice sweet spot where everyone can learn and achieve. However, few are being pushed to reach his or her highest potential either. Finland’s collective average is high because everyone does at least okay.

Through my observations and interviews I began to feel as if instead of discovering an unusually high level of female achievement in Finland I was actually uncovering a lack of male achievement.   Globally, the difference in gender achievement in mathematics is at the high end of the spectrum. There are the same number of girls and boys struggling with mathematics at the low end of the achievement spectrum.

Males tend to be the most gifted mathematically and that high achievement in math is not to be found in Finland. I did not find mathematically gifted and talented males or females in Finland. The Finnish students are simply not pushed to reach those extremes. And so, without the usually highly gifted few male to bring up the male average, we see the highly motivated hardworking girls take the lead for its country.   This is perhaps something Finland needs to further explore.

The below PDF was my research report submitted to the Fulbright department.  I am not oblivious to the fact that it isn’t perfect research.  I need to do so much more work  in order for it to be complete and publishable.  My vanity was perhaps why I waited so long to share it with you,  but I decided it was better to share than to keep to myself.  I hope to one day continue this research, but for now this will do.

Day Capstone-Breaking through the Math Ceiling.docx

 

 

 

 

The Teacher’s Harvest: A letter to my teacher.

264536-harvestA year ago today a great teacher passed away.  Mr. Wiatt was a self proclaimed simple man.  He was a teacher and a farmer, yet he meant so much more to those who knew him.  He taught me to understand and appreciate mathematics, the subject I now teach and love.

I was able to send him the below letter for his birthday last year.  He received it a few weeks before his passing.  I am so thankful that I was able to express my gratitude for all he had done for me.   I was not able to attend his funeral because I was living in Finland at the time, but the family read the below letter at his services.  I wanted to share it with you today as I remember a great man and teacher.

 

My Dear Mr. Wiatt,

I am sorry I cannot be here with your family and loved ones today as we celebrate you and the great man, father, teacher and friend you were in our lives.   However, I want you to know what a difference you have made in my life.

I am a math teacher and I cannot imagine doing anything else.   Like you, teaching math is my life’s calling and I find so much joy and contentment from it. And I owe it all to you and your skillful example and kind instruction.   I would not have had the courage or the ability to pursue a math degree without first being your student.

You made a profound impact on me in school. You were able to explain math in a way that just made sense. Your teaching was so simple, so logical and without frill. You were able to cut to the chase and simply teach. I gained so much confidence from taking your courses.

You are a foundation of Southmont High School. A legacy. A legend. You were everyone’s favorite teacher. My parents loved you, my brother and friends loved you, and I loved you. And while, you sent many of us to the Hallway for various reasons (I think you sent me once for apologizing too much….I’m still sorry about that by the way.) you did it with love and often a trace of a smile.

Your stories and ironic wit made us all laugh and enjoy your math classroom. I, like so many others throughout the years, looked forward to math everyday. I thrived in your class and began to see that I could be successful in math. With that confidence came the realization that I wanted to become a math teacher just like you.

And I did. You, not my university education, taught me how to teach and love math.  I truly mean that. Those fancy education courses didn’t teach me a thing about actually teaching math- you did. Everything I know about good solid math instruction came from you. I use your crazy sayings and explanations with my students every single day I teach.  

Like you, my teaching is simple, logical and to the point and I also color it with funny stories and silly sayings that add life and fun to the classroom. I know now, just as you knew then, these silly sayings are not just for show. It allows us to really remember the special tricks along the way. I still can’t subtract a negative integer without thinking “Bam Bam”. I also always think “plus a blank-a, plus a blank-a” when I am trying to complete a square. And NO ONE will ever be able to add two unlike terms together because you simply cannot add Pumpkin Pies to Pumpkin Rolls! And the list of Wiatt-isms goes on and on.

What I am trying to say, your teaching legacy continues. You are teaching a whole new generation of students through me, and several others who have followed in your footsteps of becoming math teachers.

But your legacy continues and reaches beyond the math classroom. Your teaching legacy continues in the hundreds of engineers, doctors, nurses, businesspersons, electricians, farmers, accountants, construction managers, lawyers and other professionals you taught in your 40+ years of teaching.  

Our collective success is due, in part, to the math and life lessons we learned in your classroom. You knew math education isn’t about the math. It is about teaching students to use their brains. That is what you trained us to do, and for that we are forever grateful.  

You always talked about being just a simple farmer. And you were just a farmer, but not in the traditional sense.   What you planted in all of us was far more valuable than the corn and beans you planted in the ground.

We, your students who love and cherish you, are your crop. We, the students of Southmont High School, are your harvest.   We are your life’s work and we are so thankful for your years of dedication, love, kindness, wit, humor and service.

Southmont would not have been the same without a Mr. Wiatt.   Our lives would not have been the same without you. I love you Mr. Wiatt, and I am so thankful for you and what you have meant to my life.

Love Always,

Kelly , Your faithful math student.

 

I can’t find the “Less” in the Middle of so much “More”.

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I’ve not written much since I have been home from my Fulbright experience in Finland where I became the champion for the Finnish concept of “Less is More“.  The truth is I quickly realized that I couldn’t make the Finnish “less” work in the middle of all of the American “more”. Within weeks of returning from Finland feeling fresh, rejuvenated and free of business, I found myself more committed, more scheduled, and more stressed than ever before.

I got completely sucked back into the outrageously busy lifestyle of the Typical American.  When I returned I was simply too occupied and drained mentally and emotionally to write.   I didn’t have the time, energy or the stillness required to produce good and thoughtful writing.  The days of my peaceful and quite Finnish lifestyle full of self-reflection and introspection were over.  They were replaced with days of my to-go-coffee, 10-minute lunch breaks and penciled in meetings.

Forgetting everything I loved and observed in Finnish classrooms, I fell right back into the swing of the American teacher lifestyle.  Each day I have 192 students, 7 classes and high expectations and demands.  I became consumed once again. I was putting in 12-hour days filled with grading hundreds of tests and assignments.

I quickly realized that the Finnish mentality does not work in our American schools. I tried some Finnish classroom ideas on my students.  I tried to ease up on the homework assigned.   I tried to adopt the “less is more” concept to my teaching and my classroom, but it did not work.  Our Society has created a structure that is too integrated with our competitive culture for the Finnish mindset to be effective.  My 7th grade students didn’t know how to adapt to a school mode based on less structure, less competitiveness and less formal accountability.

And if I am being honest, I didn’t know how to adapt my teaching either.  It took me all of three hours back in the school setting to feel the weight of the substantial curriculum I was expected to cover in a year.  I forgot how much our 12-year-old students were required to learn in only a few short months.

I soon understood that a Finnish pace was not going to cut it in our results-centric culture.   If I want my students to succeed in our society I would have to pick up my pace.  I would have to do more, not less.  I am ashamed to admit how quickly I relapsed back into the nasty American obsession with testing and results.

At the end of the day, the heart of the American spirit is competition.  Those who succeed in this country have worked the hardest and have pushed themselves to their highest levels. They really have done more, not less.  As teachers we are expected to demand excellence from our students and push them to compete to become the best.  This mentality is non-existent in Finland but also impossible to remove from American education.

Our students are truly remarkable.  What we expect and demand from them really is too much.   They have 7 to 8 classes a day, homework, sports practice, violin lessons and are also expected to get straight A’s and maintain a normal social life.  These are impossible standards for most adults, let alone 12-year-old kids.

I often feel guilty about pushing them so hard. The new standards expect my 7th graders to think and reason like PHD students. I am expected, no demanded, to lead them in that thought process regardless if they are developmentally ready for such advanced level thinking. The standards seem impossibly high.

Yet I am reminded  daily that I preparing them for an American work force that demands and expects too much of them as well.  It is our culture.  It is our identity.  Heck, It is the American dream.  We taught to believe that if you work hard enough, and do and accomplish enough you will eventually rise to the top.   The top of what and for what nobody knows. But the top is the best. Right? Maybe Not.

But this mentality exists so permanently in our culture that trying to remove it completely from the classroom would do our students a disservice. If they are going to succeed in our society, they have to learn to cope in high stress situations.  They have to learn to aim high and work hard.

As Finland demonstrates, this ultra competitive results driven philosophy on education is not necessarily the best method. I really do believe in the Finnish mindset of Less is More. I stand by what I wrote last spring. The problem is that until we change the societal expectations and our broad education systems, this Finnish mentality will not work.   The state, nation and even the parents of my students demand I push students to reach their fullest potential. I am not a good teacher unless I get them to work hard and push them to be their best.

In the United states we do not teach to the middle (the universally achievable average) as Finland does.   Instead of teaching to the middle like Finland, our standards aim for the very top level of possible performance.  We put expectations that are so high that only a select few are capable of reaching.  The result is we have a group of truly elite scholars and a group of those left in the dark.   Education mirrors society and while we are very good at getting a big group of students ahead in life, we also leave behind those who can’t cope with our demands and expectations.

I had huge hopes to remedy this sad truth.  But I failed miserably.  I tried to incorporate the Finnish mentality I had observed in Finland to my classroom.  However I, being American through and through, soon felt like I was failing my students. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was a bad teacher for not pushing and challenging them to think more critically, do more problem solving and cover more content and problems.  I really felt like I was not doing my job and that they were not learning enough. And so, like a fraud, before I knew it I had abandoned my mantra and dove headfirst back into the “More is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to make the Finnish mentality work in the midst of our American system of high stake testing and competition.  And so I remained silent.  I stopped writing.

I have lost the Finnish “Less” in the middle of all of the American “More”.

I am not sure how to find the “less” here in the midst of the swamped, hectic demands of our society.  And in some ways I enjoy my teeming American “More” abuzz with excitement, engagements and achievements.  And at the same time, there are days I yearn for Finnish simplicity and quiet calm.

And so I am stuck here in the middle struggling between two conflicting philosophies.   I understand both sides of the road and I am confused on how to best navigate. I believe in everything I stated before, Finnish success really is based on the “Less is More” mentality.

I simply don’t know how to function as a Finn here in my American classroom or in my American life.  It feels like a fight against a strong current.  Right now I don’t have the answers, I really do feel quite stuck. In the mean time I will try to find a way to incorporate a little more “less” in this world of so much “more.”  Until then, I am here writing my thoughts and trying my best. Thank you for listening.

” Yes I can! I’m Clover Anne! I can be an Engineer!”

I can’t describe how much I LOVE the below book series.  The  “I can be an Engineer” books are all about empowering young girls to be mathematical thinkers and problem solvers!  I know the author, who is an engineer herself.  She is dedicated to helping inspire young girls to become engineers.  We need more messages and books like this out in the world!  Please check it out!  I recommend having a copy of this book in all classrooms!  It is a great book for all boys and girls!

I’m a Teacher- What I learned from my Fulbright Experience.

11659426_10100132656593536_6404291644614424767_nWhen I left for my Fulbright experience at the University of Helsinki I fully expected the experience would change the very course of my life.   I had begun to stagnate and feel restless in my teaching position. I had always loved my job as a teacher but after an unusually difficult year, I began to wonder if it was time for me to move on and pursue other opportunities.

When I received word that I was selected to receive the great honor of being a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, I saw this experience as an opportunity to take a breath, step back from teaching for a time, recollect and reevaluate my life. I felt like I was approaching a symbolic fork in road of my life.   I was certain I would return from this experience a changed person with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.   When I left for Finland I prayed I would gain a clear picture of what I should do next and how I was to move forward.

In many ways I saw this experience as a stepping-stone in my path towards a formal research career. I thought perhaps earning a PHD in education would appease this restless desire growing inside myself to do and accomplish more in my life. I felt like I had more to give and it seemed like the logical next step. I could see myself, armed with the power of the Fulbright crest gleaming on my resume, ready to enter into the world of formal academia and research. I had great dreams and plans to go get my doctorate at an impressive university, like Stanford, Harvard or Yale. I had decided I would spend my days being important, highly admired and respected. I was ready to start an impressive research project that would prove my intelligence and importance to the world and springboard me into a life of lectures, conferences and publications.

However my time spent in Finland taught me that, while I could be successful in the world of formal academia, it was not where my heart resided.     I learned quickly that my heart was not in formal research. My heart is and will always reside in the classroom. My most favorite days in Finland were the days I spent playing with the 3rd graders at recess or teaching my group of 7th grade Finnish students the intricacies of geometry. I am so thankful for the opportunity I got to co-teach a 7th grade geometry course at an English speaking school in Helsinki. I looked forward to this weekly class and it became one of the highlights of my experience. Not only did it give me a very valuable glance at the teacher’s perspective of Finland’s education system, it also demonstrated my need to be in front of a classroom.

When I was observing other Finnish classrooms I often felt a surge to stand up and teach. It was hard sometimes to not step in and interject some of my thoughts on a certain topic. I also kept thinking about the amazing ways I would improve my own teaching when I return to my school this fall. This experience, taught me that my passion resides in front of a classroom.

I am a teacher. I am a practitioner. I do not belong in an office reading studies, collecting data and analyzing survey results. I belong in the classroom. I come alive there. When I attended formal doctoral lectures, or attended PHD seminars and conferences I learned valuable information but I also felt restless and confused. I met some very intelligent individuals with impressive theories and theological arguments. I learned a lot of facts but nothing that seemed applicable or helpful to an actual living-breathing classroom.

I often sat there pondering the applications of these theories, projects and papers. I wanted to see them put into action instead of being merely discussed and debated.   I realized there is a huge difference between educational researchers and practicing teachers. Many educational researchers had spent years studying education, but had never actually taught a classroom of students. And while they have many theories (some good, some bad) about how teaching should be done, they have never experienced the joy of actually watching their students learn and grow throughout the course of a year.

Researches don’t know what it is like to be entrusted with 180 beautifully unique and talented individuals whom I write on my heart each year.   They don’t know what is like to have these students consume my thoughts and actions. Yes, as a teacher I stress and constantly think and worry about my students. I pour my heart and soul into them and serve them with everything I have. It is stressful, it is time consuming and it is hard. But I love it. At the end of the day the research may not have the stress, the anxiety and the pain of a practicing teacher. However, researchers are also missing out on the joy of knowing they are helping young individuals become who they are destined to become.

10257048_10100130081783476_5627855949294620207_n I am so thankful for the many experiences I had during my time in Finland that reminded me of that joy and the passion I have for my chosen profession. I am a teacher, not a researcher. That is what I have learned and knowing that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing with my life is an invaluable gift. I cannot wait to start applying what I have learned about education in Finland to my classroom.

         I also learned that I am a writer. I have something to say and people who are willing to listen.   While In Finland I started writing about my experiences in my blog. This blog usually has a small readership that extends only to my mother and a few dedicated friends. However suddenly, because of this Fulbright experience, people became interested in what I had to say and I was able to share my thoughts and experiences in Finland with several thousand people.

Because of this incredible exposure, I was able to meet with and share educational ideas with people from all around the world. My article was published in an Australian Education journal, was listed among the top 100 educational blogs in the U.S. and was also mentioned in Finland’s most prestigious and wildly circulated newspaper.   My article about Finnish education has now been translated into Portuguese and Korean and is being distributed as part of teacher training system at a Korean university. I have had so many doors and opportunities opened and presented to me because of this Fulbright experience.

This has taught me that I do not have to be in the world of formal academia to have a voice. I can express myself and change the world by being myself, doing what I love and sharing my experiences and ideas with others. I can teach and make a huge impact on both my students and the education world by sticking to my talents. I am a teacher and a writer and this experience in Finland has taught me how to balance both of those skills.

I hope to take what I have learned in Finland and become an even better teacher to my students. I also intend to continue to write about education and hopefully promote educational change and reform in my school, state and perhaps one day my country. I believe, however, the best way to do this is to remain in the trenches so to speak. I do not feel like a higher degree is in the cards for me at the moment. Instead I realize I can make the greatest impact in front of the classroom and in the hearts of my students.

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The three REAL reasons for Finland’s high PISA scores.

IMG_0459I bet all of you are tired of my rose-colored posts on the seemingly perfect Finnish Education system.   I just imagine you saying at home “Ok, we get it. Finland has a utopic education system, with a never-ending supply of recesses, free lunch, snack times and breaks. Students have less homework, fewer classes and less stress. We have read your article on how “Less is More”, and we understand that Finland has created an idealistic learning environment. But this really doesn’t explain their high scores on international assessments like PISA.”

You are right. It is confusing and counter intuitive. If I am being brutally honest with you, the math in a typical secondary level Finnish classroom is not particularly rigorous or advanced. While the instruction is sound and I have few critiques on the actual teaching, the topics covered in most classes were not extremely difficult.   The actual calculations and content covered in a 9th or 10th grade level class, even the honors classes, were all topics I could easily assign to my high achieving 7th graders (Finnish 6th graders).

So, what enables Finnish 15 year old students to rank at the top of the PISA scores while the U.S. scores remains incredibly average or even below?

How do Finnish students, who spend their evenings skateboarding, playing video games or hanging out with friends, perform almost as high as those from Singapore or Korea where kids go to a “second school” after public school until 10:00 pm and follow that up with 4 or more hours of homework? It doesn’t add up.

Finland’s education system sounds great and wonderful and full of sunshine and rainbows, but how does it work? How are they getting such great scores in math?

1.  It is all about the law of Averages. Finland is a country where everyone does “Well”.

Finland, a country that prides itself on equitable education, does a great job at getting and keeping everyone on the same playing field. Mirroring the philosophy of their society and governmental structures, education in Finland is more concerned with the collective good and making sure that every student does well instead of focusing on competition, tracking and ranking.

The result is that every student learns what they need to learn and does quite well at the basics, but not much more. There are very few high achievers. In fact on the recent PISA assessment Finland, while ranking far above the international average, Finland only had around 15% reach a top performing category, while the Asian Nations who beat Finland had between 30 to 50% of their students reach that top category. Yet, at the same time Finland had very few students on the low spectrum.

In Finland no one is pushed to become great, but no one gets left behind either. When everyone in society is doing at least “okay”, this creates a collectively high average that beats the average of a country like the U.S. or China that have gigantic educational achievement gaps that mirrors their societal and economic structures.

It isn’t a secret that the U.S. society is obsessed with competition. This mentality has created an education system that continually pushes students to learn and achieve at high levels. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Our system, that is based on competition and ranking, is very good at creating a huge group of students who excel and thrive in very advanced mathematical courses.

However, we have become so focused and intent on pushing our kids to learn more and more, that we create a hole in actual student understanding and their natural progression of learning.   It is starting to become common practice to put 5th and 6th graders into Algebra, which I think is crazy, unnecessary and detrimental!  U.S. kids are very good at following steps and getting the correct answer, but they have no idea what those answers mean or how they can be applied to real life situations.

And while all U.S. students are exposed to much more mathematics than the average Finnish student, this doesn’t mean they actually understand or retain all of that math information.   And many can’t keep up with the impossible standards. Thus, we have the flip side to the American coin. We have a massive amount of students, especially in less affluent States and communities who are failing math completely.

In the spitting image of our American economy, we have a large successful group at the top but an even larger group at the bottom who pull our collective score below international averages.  Finnish academic performance also reflects its economy. Everyone does well or at least okay and so the collective scores are high.

It is no accident that academic achievement mirrors the country’s economic structures.  We will never fix our broken education system in the U.S. until we fix our broken economic system.  Students will continue to fail academically as long as they live in fear, hunger and poverty- no matter what educational reforms or policies we enact.  To the most extent these roadblocks do not exist in Finland.  All students are fairly equal in terms of provisions and care at home.  Most Finnish students come to school feeling safe, fed, loved, wanted and ready to learn.

However, I wonder if this “everyone is doing okay, so lets not worry about it” mentality is going to be a problem for Finland in the future. I have visited several math classrooms all around Helsinki and I often think that there are a handful of students that could be pushed to learn more and perform at higher levels. Perhaps a little more competition and challenge would be healthy for Finland’s youth.   Like everything in life, there is usually a happy medium.

 2.  It isn’t about Calculations, Formulas or Factoring!

Math classrooms in Finland do not focus on calculations, solving algebraic equations, or what I would call formal mathematics. In fact I visited a 9th grade honors classroom where students were learning how to calculate the volume of a triangular prism for the first time. They were also struggling with what I would consider basic algebra concepts that would be simple to my 7th graders.

However, It didn’t take me long to recognize that Finnish math education isn’t overly concerned with calculations or formulas. The kids in Finland don’t do rows and rows of algebraic problems. They don’t sit around factoring complex equations for months on end. They are taught more practical skills and ways of thinking about and learning mathematics.

And if you take a look at the PISA questions you can quickly see why Finnish students are succeeding and U.S. students are failing. The questions do not look like the questions on an American math exam. There are no equations to solve or problems to calculate.

I recently took the PISA exam out of curiosity and to my surprise it looked more like a logic exam than a math exam. There were no what I would call “pure” math questions. They were all logical real life questions. I could do most of the problems in my head. All I had to do is sit and think the question through rationally and use my previous experiences and knowledge of the world to help me work out the problem. I didn’t reach for a pen and paper once to calculate or solve.

This is the KEY my friends. The PISA exam does not measure a students ability to solve a mathematical equation or calculate the answer to a directly given math problem.   It doesn’t require factoring skills or differentials.   The mathematics used in this international assessment of “What students should know” is actually fairly simple and straightforward every day math.

The math itself is not complicated or difficult. The students must read the problem, assess the situation, and figure out the answer. And the Finnish students who have been treated more like adults than children have more real life experiences from which to pull to problem solve. They have been given independence at a young age and have therefore figured out how to deal with real-life issues and problems on their own.

They have also had an education system that has not spoon-fed them all of the answers. They have learned how to read through a problem, think it through logically and actually attempt to find an answer before they give up.

The U.S. needs to focus less on actual drill and skill in mathematics and work more on problem solving and logic.  Our students, who are very good at solving equations and doing calculations, have no idea WHEN to use one equation/ calculation over the other. Yes, they can apply their good calculation skills 30 times in a row, but being able to read a problem and identify which calculation should be used in a given situation is a different story altogether.

Also we need our students to actually read the math questions and not give up when they see a paragraph. They need more mathematical literacy skills and less “formal calculation” skills if they are going to compete globally.

 3.  Physics, Physics and More Physics

In any given week in Finland I will meet or talk to more people who have a degree in physics than I have met in my ENTIRE life in the United States. I swear- everywhere I go in Finland I find someone who studied physics or is currently getting their PHD in the impressive and very allusive field.   It is crazy to me- Physics is not something that is very common in the U.S.

I am a math teacher. I have a degree in mathematics and I have never taken a physics course. Ever. The physics teacher in my high school was crazy so I avoided her class. I therefore was too intimidated to take a college level physics course and opted to take a chemistry course for my science requirement instead.

The concept of Physics is terrifying to most Americans. We don’t know it, we don’t understand it and we assume it is a field for only the highly gifted and talented.  While it is common for U.S. students to take ONE physics course in high school, it isn’t a requirement. They also are not exposed to very much physics before the age of 16.

However all children in Finland take physics as part of their regular curriculum. As early as 4th or 5th grade Finnish students learn the basics of physics. They have a physics class every year in middle school and high school. Most of the math teachers are also qualified to teach physics.

It is a common subject and one that does not breed disdain and fear. In fact many of the students I have questioned or interviewed stated they actually prefer their physics classes to their math classes. Why? They prefer physics because it is actually APPLIED mathematics. The students can see how math is being used, applied and how it is relevant to the actual physical world in which they live.

When you look at the questions being asked on the PISA test the questions are more geared toward an understanding of physics than actual mathematics. This is the huge difference.

While American 15-year-old students can calculate circles around Finnish students, they are clueless when it comes to physics and mathematical application.   Our students don’t know how to properly apply the math they know so well. Where Finnish students, who have had years of physics classes, understand the questions being asked and know how to apply their knowledge of math in a real and logical way.

English is a Powerful Gift

IMG_2602The more I travel and work internationally, the more I realize what an outrageous blessing it is be a native English speaker.  It is a gift, a powerful gift, that I do not take for granted.  This incredible highly pursued and valuable skill is one that I inherited naturally because I had the fortune to grow up in an English speaking household and in an English speaking country.   This incredible advantage feels very much as if I have a secret key/open door through which I can easily and confidently communicate to the entire world.  I understand the profoundness of this advantage and I am thankful for it every day.

Last week I attended the 5th Annual Nordic academic conference on Subject Teacher Education.  This was a conference that brought together University researchers, professors and doctoral students from Universities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.   The purpose was to exchange ideas and promote the development of Nordic education.  The language that was used for this Nordic conference was English.  All of the lectures, Keynote speeches, PowerPoints, printed programs, signs and directions were all in English  Most of the discussions at the dinner table were in English.  There were over 250 different lectures and presentations and all were given in English.   Yet, I was one of only a handful in attendance who’s native language was actually English.

And I was suddenly reminded what an extreme gift and blessing it is to be a native English Speaker.  I could listen to the presentations easily.  I could process the presented information comfortably and rapidly.  I did not have the added challenge of many of my peers who had to translate the technical papers and jargon in their heads while  also trying to also learn and process the new information.  When I sat down to a dinner table full of a combination of Swedes, Finns and Danes I knew that the language of choice would be English.

At times I felt guilty that the entire conference was being led in a language in which I was one of only a handful in attendance could claim as their mother tongue.  This I am learning, however, is the way of the world.  English is becoming the instrument of global communication.  It is especially how European nations communicate to and with each other.

This was not the first time I had been made aware of English’s global presence in the world.  I have been to over 30 countries and I have never had any major difficulties finding directions, advice or even friendly conversation in English.  I have yet to visit a country where I could not find someone who understood at least a little English.  Some parts of China were a little less fluent than others, but I would usually be able to find someone (usually a teen) who could easily answer my questions and help me get back on the right path.

When I was traveling from hostel to hostel in New Zealand, there were times when I found myself listening to random conversations between international travelers.  These groups would included random variations of German, French, Italian and Dutch students and their vehicle of communication was English.   At first I had assumed everyone was politely talking English because I was in the mix.  However I began to notice that even when the native English speaker was not part of the conversation ( Instead she was rudely eavesdropping)  the medium of communication was still English.   Everywhere you go (Even Cambodia!)  information in English is readily available.  If you ask you can usually find an English version of any map, menu or information packet.

My experiences demonstrate to me that English isn’t going anywhere.  It is going to be the way in which nations communicate with each other in the future. Most researchers want their publications to be in English.  Most international companies conduct their business in English, and most international social events and gatherings are conducted in English.  I watched Euro Vision for the first time this year and most of this event was broadcast in English and most of the songs lyrics were English as well.  It can’t be escaped.   It is becoming the language of the world and it is being categorized as “Powerful Knowledge”.

At the conference a few of the keynote speakers alluded to the fact that in Education we must give our students the education skill set that empowers them.  As educators our primary focus should not be mere facts or even arbitrary skills.  Instead we should be selectively teaching Powerful Knowledge Skills that empower students to be leaders and innovators in the world.   English was included in that powerful knowledge skill set.

I feel a little conceited writing all of this as a native English speaker.  It sounds arrogant and elitist of me.  It sounds as if I think my language is the best language.  I DON’T!   English is a dumb language with silly rules!  It makes no sense and is not even very pretty- especially when compared to Latin based languages.   If it was based on beauty or logical structure I think Spanish would win!

It is not that I think English is a better language than any other.  There is however, no denying  that being fluent in English is a Powerful Skill.  It opens doors and possibilities than many languages of the world simply cannot.  Students around the globe want to know and must know how to communicate in English in order to be able to compete globally and advance themselves in their careers.

This isn’t new information to Europe.  Most of the world has known English is important to learn for a long time.  I just wanted to express my understanding of how truly blessed I am to have grown up speaking and knowing this language.   I want every native speaker of English to recognize how fortunate they are to be able to communicate freely and openly with people from around the globe.  That is a gift my friends, an amazing incredible powerful gift and we take it for granted.

I also want to thank all of my wonderful friends around the world who have graciously spoken English to me.  I understand this is not always the easiest for you.  I see all of the hard work and effort you are making to be my friend and communicate with me.  I appreciate your efforts and willingness to speak with me more than you could ever know.  I am always amazed and impressed by your ability to be so articulate, gracious, funny and warm in a language that is not your own.  I am so incredibly blessed and thankful for having you in my life!  You all are incredible and talented and I look up to you in so many ways!  I am impressed and humbled by your skill and I love you all!Screen shot 2015-06-01 at 3.57.30 PM