How to innovate Mathematics teaching?

By Rodrigo Ponce

Many of us who learned mathematics through the structured or traditional method will undoubtedly find this scene familiar: the teacher comes into the classroom, starts explaining a theorem and writes exercises on the blackboard; the students copy them down, solve innumerable exercises and, finally, time permitting, complete an example of what they have learned. This scene is not just from the past, but is still being repeated today in many classrooms.

The reality is that Mexico, along with other Latin American countries, has oen obtained the lowest scores on the PISA test (Programme for International Student Assessment) by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which measures students’ development in reading, mathematics and science competencies.

We need to foster students’ inquisitive spirit, in which knowledge acquisition is mostly centered on observation and experimentation.

This test evaluates the application of mathematics in a specific context; however, it must be stressed that students are rarely taught how to put their knowledge into practice. Instead, teachers continue to work with mathematics in an abstract, theoretical manner.

If we change the way or method of teaching math, more students would find it easier to learn this subject. In fact, learning and using math develops key skills, including problem solving, which also enhances comprehension in other areas of knowledge, such as science.

Nowadays, the educator’s task goes beyond teaching a topic in the classroom; there is a pressing need to innovate and evaluate student learning outcomes. As teachers, we should consider students’ experience with natural phenomena, invite them to experiment and introduce the conceptual theories used in mathematics according to their observations, thus avoiding contradictions in student learning.

This is no small challenge faced by the new generation of educators. In fact, Leonardo Garnier, former education minister of Costa Rica, commented in an interview with the Observatory of Educational Innovation of Tecnológico de Monterrey that the new generations of educators tend to teach in the same way they were taught 20 years ago, and not how they were trained at college. Breaking this pattern is very diicult, although many teachers have managed to implement this change.

I had the opportunity to attend an annual event organized by the Latin American Association of Research in Educational Sciences (LASERA), which brings together teachers and researchers from Latin America to address topics such as curricular content revision, teaching-learning strategies, methodological experiences, and new teaching materials and instruments. A recurrent challenge presented in the seminar was how to foster students’ inquisitive spirit, since knowledge acquisition starts largely through the observation and experimentation of natural phenomena.

Math by Jeremy Mikkola
A trend in education is the use of Remote Laboratories, which have overcome the limitations of in-person laboratories.

In addition, I learned about the transformation project in Costa Rica for the basic math education program, that includes a radical switch in teaching strategies and methods, and reform of the program of study, which is divided into four learning stages: Formulation of a real-life problem or challenge, where problems that are tangible and meaningful for students are presented; Independent student work, so that students can discuss, investigate and propose solutions; Brainstorming and communicating answers, which promotes collaborative group work to visualize the dierent proposed solutions, since discussion is encouraged to complement the work of the diverse teams; and, Closure of the learning module, where the teacher consolidates the knowledge acquired using mathematical concepts and theorems.

This new proposal for math programs can be replicated perfectly well in any area of natural science, since the most important part of the teacher’s function is the appropriate, relevant selection of the problems presented to students, emphasizing real contexts. Particularly in science, natural phenomena experimentation must be a priority, so that students can solve problems hands-on, creating an experience and knowledge through real-life challenges and the observation of possible solutions.

Another trend in education is the use of Remote Laboratories, which have overcome the limitations of in-person laboratories, providing a virtual interface, where students can work with real laboratory equipment and observe activities through a computer or mobile device webcam. Moreover, virtual laboratories are web applications that emulate the operation of an in-person laboratory and allow students to practice in a safe environment before using physical components.

At present, students have access to remote experiments conducted in universities in other states and countries, which are carried out with real equipment and managed online. The experience of a remote laboratory allows students to generate significant learning, compared with traditional techniques that use only abstract concepts and equations, without actual hands-on experience with the real phenomena presented.

In relation to this topic, I was able to get in touch with Deusto University (Spain) which currently allows high school and undergraduate students in Mexico to remotely access their laboratories. In this way, by means of an interface, the students can put into practice the knowledge acquired in the classroom, by observing and experimenting in a real-life laboratory online.

Finally, these changes would not be possible without teacher professionalization. Argentina, for example, has proposed three pillars for qualities educators need in the new millennia:

  1. Pedagogical Foundation, since teachers must have scientific knowledge of student learning and of the current pedagogical methodologies. In other words, just mastering their specific subject is no longer enough.
  2. Teamwork with colleagues, because sharing activities or working together is important to keep up to date both pedagogically and conceptually in their discipline.
  3. Classroom quality management, the teacher must become a researcher in education, in order to innovate and assess the student learning process. These three pillars will form the basis for streamlining the work achieved by teachers individually and with their colleagues.

Today, Latin American teachers are immersed in educational change worldwide, because we have so much to contribute to 21st-century education. We need to keep abreast of the latest trends and propose educational innovation. The future of education also lies in our Latin American educational institutions; we are leaders of change and can make a significant contribution to education. I would like to invite you to become a bold, ground-breaking educator, creating innovative learning environments, generating disruptive activities, and aligning the curriculum with the aim of enhancing education in your classroom, your country and, consequently, the world.

About the Author:

Dr. Rodrigo Ponce Díaz is the Director of the Department of Science and Technology at Prepa Tec Monterrey and Professor of the Department of Physics at Campus Monterrey.