Michael Flynn lectures on need for more creative teaching of math

By Brianna Corcoran

While it is true there is only one right answer to every math problem, elementary school teacher and Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching winner Michael Flynn believes there is more than one way to solve it.

Courtesy jimmiehomeschoolmom/Flickr
Courtesy jimmiehomeschoolmom/Flickr

In a Science Technology Engineering and Math Talk (STEM) lecture titled “Breaking the Cycle of Mediocrity in Math Instruction,” Flynn explained on Tuesday night there is more than one way to teach math. In fact, there are two: routine exercise and adaptive expertise.

According to Flynn, routine expertise is a method where the students do math problems over and over until they have mastered a set routine, while adaptive expertise asks the students to solve a problem in different ways to find the way that works best for them. To illustrate the different methods, Flynn compared the two methods with driving into Boston, commenting, “being left alone in Boston, that’s how it feels to be lost in math.” According to Flynn, the routine expertise method is like making children memorize Mapquest directions into Boston. It forces them to focus on numbers and columns, but not the process that drives the student to the result. Also, there is no way to get the right answer except backtracking or asking for help according to Flynn.

On the other hand, the adaptive expertise method, according to Flynn, is like taking a day to drive around Boston with a person who knows the street layout well. Driving around with a person who knows the area well is the same as children creatively coming to solutions with the guidance of a teacher, said Flynn. “In doing that, I could figure out multiple ways to get to a location,” he said, “and that is what we want our kids to do in math.”

Flynn emphasized that it is essential for students to think creatively in math because it helps them identify the fastest way to get to the solution of the problem. He claimed that emphasizing the procedural knowledge of completing a math problem creates the illusion of understanding, which is why we are stuck in the same routine expertise method of teaching math, he said.

To change the way students are taught math, Flynn proposed that schools must stop changing the curriculum and books every three to five years because it takes a teacher three to five years to become accustomed to the entire content of the book.

To prove his point, Flynn shared his experience of attending a teaching conference, where a Pearson Textbook Company sales representative claimed to different groups of teachers that three different books, with different teaching methods, were the “best” book for students to learn from.

When Flynn questioned him, the representative said, “You’re in the business of educating children, we’re in the business of making money,” according to Flynn.

Flynn said that the textbook companies only want to make money off of the schools and schools need to stop debating what book is best for the students. He claimed that corporations are trying to make money and are negatively affecting the children’s lives.
Flynn said that the issue of what book to use is a “red herring.” Instead, schools need to invest in educating teachers about math methods that are more beneficial to students. He said that there should be programs and seminars that educate teachers and on different math methods. He stressed the need of administrators to recognize a good math class so that they can accurately judge a class when they sit in on one. He also wants colleges to teach education majors different math methods, because he believes that it will start the process of reforming how math is taught in schools.

Michael Flynn is an elementary school teacher in Southampton, MA, as well as a tutor and educational speaker. He spends his summers giving lectures on teaching math and interviewing other math teachers.

Brianna Corcoran can be reached at [email protected]