ShiftED Podcast is back with two outstanding elementary math consultants from English Montreal School board: Aliya Somani and Shana Rowen. Our conversation is all about math, the pandemic, and re-understanding the purpose of math. Not only do we discuss the shift in math education during a pandemic, but we dive deep into the crux of math education in Quebec, from the competencies, the difference between application problems and situational problems, our hopes for the future of math, and how to avoid math anxiety in our students. It is a rich conversation for all educators looking to improve their practice. One of the many great quotes by Aliya and Shana, when talking about solving math problems intuitively, that “[educators] take intuitiveness away from [students] by teaching them procedure.” Full Stop!
edited for readability
Chris Colley (LEARN): All right, so we are here, back on ShiftED podcasts. We’re looking at how education has shifted over the last year during this COVID crisis that we’re all going through. Today we’re going to focus in a little bit on math education and how that has been affected. There’s a lot of stories in the news about how math is – students are tending to struggle a little bit more so I brought in two experts in the field. I have with us today Shana Rowen and Aliya Somani from English Montreal School Board (EMSB) and they’re two elementary school consultants. We’re going to talk about math and COVID. Wow! Two amazing things.
Chris: Welcome guys to ShiftED podcasts and (thank you) thanks so much for coming in and having this chat. Let’s just situate yourselves a little bit. You guys want to just kind of tell us what your role is at your school board and the kinds of things you do and just a little kind of background on you guys. Shana would you like to –
Shana: Sure yeah so my name is Shana. I’m the elementary math consultant at the EMSB and I’ve been at it for two years. Before that, I was a high school teacher actually for over 10 years but I’m elementary trained so I have that experience of seeing at the elementary level what happens and then also seeing where they’re going into the high school level.
Aliya: And so…very much like Shana, I think we have the same story. I also – I actually started in 2016 at the school board. I’m the numeracy consultant at the board and prior to that I was teaching at Lauren Hill Academy for over 10 years as well. I’m also elementary trained so…[I] had the elementary experience but teaching high school so knew where it was going.
Chris: That’s cool. I mean, I think the best consultants have taught. [They] have been in the trenches, right? We’ve experienced the highs and lows of teaching and it brings us, you know…
Aliya: It’s funny having this job though. You just want to go back into the classroom and change a whole bunch of things that you know you were doing. In my head, I was doing the right thing but now as a consultant and having that time to just kind of read and do some of the research and you know just speaking to other people you’re like – oh man! I wish I could just go back and change everything that I was.
Chris: You get all of these ideas that need to be shifted. That’s an interesting thing too. Do you guys tend to go in – I mean, under the situation it’s a little trickier with the Covid and everything but do you tend to do that as a practice – to go into teacher’s classrooms and actually kind of model?
Aliya: Yeah! That was like, I think, the main part of our job. The funnest part of our job. We were sometimes the two of us in three different schools on one day. Let’s pack our day. Let’s just do this, you know? It was anywhere from teaching grade one in the morning and then you’re teaching grade six. It was just all levels and just interacting with all of them, all the kids, all the levels.
Shana: And I find that’s the best part. One of the best parts of the job is really going into the classrooms and being able to see what the teachers are doing but also being [able to] test different things, to model different things, interacting with teachers, with students. So I love the fact that we can do that. We have the liberty to see everything that’s happening and Aliya and I have over 30 schools that we can go to. So we have an abundance of teachers to work with, schools to work with, classes, and it’s a great place to test different things.
Aliya: Exactly. It’s also a reality check for us too, you know? Sometimes, you start planning these things and in a perfect world, this is how it would go but then you get into the classroom to test it …It’s nice to have that reality check. This is how it is. It allows us to do that experimentation process too.
Chris: I imagine that really informs your practice as well. You’re going in and you’re boots to the ground. Seeing what happens with the ideas that you’re bringing in and how teachers are interacting with it. I imagine it’s quite validating for you guys when you go in?
Shana: Oh yeah
Aliya: For sure.
Shana: I have conversations all the time and we’re always working and collaborating together. The nice thing is we work together and when we test it out, I think that shows us and informs us and then we go back and we take it and we test things out more. So, it’s always nice that we have that opportunity to collaborate together, get all our ideas together, and then really test it.
Chris: Absolutely. Such a great thing. Well speaking of that…So, things have changed quite a bit, right? I guess our practice pool is little, [it] is not as full as it used to be. But how do you think – how has it changed over the pandemic? I mean, it’s almost a year now that this has been going on now.
Aliya: Yeah I can’t believe it.
Chris: The time seems to fly but not fly at the same time. It’s a weird situation we’re in but how is it…What have you noticed about the change in school. I mean, particularly in your field, in math since the pandemic has started. Have you guys noticed any great challenges or anything like that…that have surfaced up to the top?
Aliya: I think I would have to say the hands-on approach of math, you know? That concrete level of teaching. We really try to enforce conceptual teaching and using manipulatives in classrooms and especially with the younger grades, when you’re really learning the foundations of math, try to make it as concrete as much as possible. I think that the pandemic has really made that hard because there’s that fear, right? There’s the fear of touching things and kids are not really in groups anymore and they’re sitting in rows. It’s a little bit of a different reality. We haven’t really been able to see how the classrooms look like either which is tough as well but from what we’re hearing, it’s a little bit harder. Teachers are not using these manipulatives just as much.
Shana: It had to be very creative…Kind of a similar thing that the challenge really was having that hands-on learning both in the classroom because of COVID and having some restrictions with their students but also in the virtual settings. We do have a virtual school too. So it’s been interesting to see the creative ways that teachers will try to go around that with the online school. They have the virtual manipulatives that a lot of the teachers have used so it’s been interesting to explore that world and looking at websites that actually benefit the students. If they don’t have all the materials that they normally would have in school, what did they use? They have those online tools. Alia and I also put together a little package of paper manipulatives for the virtual school students just to make sure that they’re getting the same thing that they would maybe get in schools. It’s been an interesting trial and error and testing out different things. The teachers are testing out different things in classes and I’m sure there’s a lot of cleaning going on.
Aliya: The one thing that we did actually experience this year which was um, kind of fun and it brought us back to working with the kids. It was one of the teachers…We were a guest in her classroom through Google Classroom. As much as the pandemic has halted a lot of things, it was nice to say that we could still connect. We could still go into the classroom and having Zoom and Google Meet and all these different platforms that we have available to us. So we were actually a guest in a grade four class where we presented a situational problem to the kids and it was funny because Shana and I were acting it out: she was in her office, I was in mine.
Shana: So much fun.
Aliya: We were acting it out and to the kids and then the teacher would kind of interact with the students and you know ask the students for questions. It was a lot of fun and then once we presented it, the kids would….They were actually working in pairs of two, so they had their masks and stuff on. When they had a question, they would come up to the computer after. So Shana and I became the expert station, like the “consultant questioning” station. So it was fun!
Chris: That’s a great idea.
Aliya: Yeah, it was! We had to be creative. That was a cool experience.
Chris: Well, it kind of leads me into that question and you are highlighting some successes. I think we can feel down on, like ugh! We’re stuck here. We’re through Zoom. We can’t touch anything. We can’t sit beside each other but you’re highlighting some beautiful successes as well. In the sense that there are ways to go about it, right? So that one strategy: I love that idea of being on Zoom. I’ve been doing a little bit of that as well and the kids don’t seem to be phased with it too much, eh? They’ll just come right up and – particularly the elementary schools. The high school might be a different beast but we’re not going to talk about high school today.
Aliya: We’re elementary.
Chris: Yeah, that’s right. So, what are some other successes that you guys have had in this time? Have you noticed some of these really cool stories like what you just shared? Have you seen other types of: ‘Wow! That would have never happened if we weren’t isolated or we weren’t…”, you know?
Shana: I think one of the other things that’s a little separate is working actually with all the consultants from the different boards and having that opportunity. Typically we meet once a month with all the math and science consultants but it’s been more frequent now because we’re getting used to using Zoom. So we’re making time to really meet in smaller groups and develop different ideas and kind of put ourselves all on the same [page]. We all discuss the same things and have the same ideas and share the successes that are happening in our boards and the things that we find challenging and helping each other out. I find that that has been really positive because we’ve gotten a lot of different ideas from different boards. So that work has been really….I find that has been really great this year too.
Aliya: Yeah, for sure.
Shana: All that information we can bring back to our teachers too. So it’s been really fun to have more discussions outside that we can then inform practice with our teachers.
Aliya: It’s true. You and I collaborate a lot and we had just given a recent workshop on situational problems actually. Shana and I spent hours just developing a checklist and trying to collaborate with each other and then presenting it with the rest of the consultants in our group. They just brought out a whole new spin on things. Stuff that Shana and I didn’t necessarily think about. So it’s nice because the two of us are always in this little bubble, right? We work together. We work really well together but sometimes your thought process is almost the same when you’re working with the same person. It was nice to present it and have a really different point of view and just, once again inform us. ‘Oh, this would make it a little bit better’ or, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’ Just kind of perfecting what we have. It’s still obviously a draft of what we’re working on but it was nice. Yeah you’re absolutely right. It’s nice to have that collaboration and had you not had this pandemic, we would still be just meeting once a month and it’s only the nitty-gritty like, the stuff that has to get discussed.
Chris: Right, right. Collaboration, if it’s humming properly, it’s a magical thing. You get these totally different perspectives on thoughts that you might have had or ideas it just transforms which is unbelievable.
Aliya: And the pandemic has really allowed that to come out. It really allowed us to have that time to collaborate and talk.
Chris: It kind of shows too eh, these skills that we always talk about – collaboration and problem solving – they start to come out in these kinds of situations and you’re sure glad that you have those skills, right? That you have that capacity to collaborate and kind of connect with somebody via distance [technology] and still get things done. I would argue too that we’re getting more things done just because we’re in schools less as consultants. We’re much more able to create and share resources and stuff like that. There’s some really cool things about it, I’m finding as well. Now, if we were to talk a little bit about the actual program. Now, the program… I know you guys have gone through this adventure of trying to explain to teachers and to – [laughter] – what it is! What you are supposed to be doing. So, I’m gonna just throw that out there. What is elementary math all about? What’s the main idea behind our program that exists here in Quebec. That’s a huge question.
Shana: It is centered around competencies. There is one competency which is, ‘solving situational problems,’ which is, I guess the big one in terms of discussion of, ‘how to’. There’s application questions, mastery style questions, that’s competency too, and then there’s actually a third competency but it’s not evaluated or reported on, let’s say, which is that communication aspect in math and the language that’s used in math and how kids explain themselves and how they explain the process of what they’re doing and just that discourse, having that conversation. I would say that it’s centered around those three competencies. It’s definitely a developmental – especially competency one, that situational competency. It’s developmental, it’s making kids into problem-solvers. It’s turning kids into really being problem-solvers.
Chris: Right, thinkers. Being able to abstract on things. Do you guys tend to bring in computational thinking into elementary. Like the basic ideas of decomposition and do those come into play ever in elementary math?
Aliya: Yeah! It’s the kids are…Obviously, at the grade 1, grade 2 level, it’s using basic math language when they’re talking about computation and how they’re doing and what they’re doing. At those levels, we really want it to be more concrete, more hands-on. But they are explaining what they’re doing and it’s maybe more on their own…It’s intuitive right? So it’s using their own kind of language. And then as they get into the older grades, that language and literature they’re looking at different properties of math. In addition, you’re looking at the associative and commutative and those properties, they do get discussed. We want kids being able to explain what they’re doing through that proper math vocabulary.
Chris: Right. They say that making learning visible, right? (Yes!)…Are you able to express what you’ve learned in your own words.
Shana: That’s definitely really important. Making it visual and having them to talk about it is super, super important. I totally, I completely agree with that.
Chris: Yeah, right. Then building their vocabulary, their math vocabulary really, right?
Chris: So Shana, my question to you… you talked about the two main competencies. What’s the difference between an application versus a situational problem. So, this is probably the thing that you guys talk about the most and I know you guys have done a ton of work on situational problems but i think they get confused. They get muddied together at times. When you’re talking to a teacher, how do you describe the two in different terms?
Shana: It is something actually that comes up a lot so there can be confusion especially at the lower grades. A situational problem, typically, not always but typically, is longer. It is often open-ended so the students are able to get multiple answers and it often includes multiple concepts, mixed in together and you can take concepts from the beginning of the year. You can take concepts from prior years of study. They may not have seen that pairing of concepts together before in the example that I give often to the teachers especially. We had a workshop yesterday. We talked about a problem that’s been done before that involves a situational problem that involves a Cartesian plane and fractions. Often we don’t see fractions paired with Cartesian planes so it’s something very new. So the concepts are seen in a new way in the situational problems but the students have seen fractions before and they’ve seen it since grade one. They have seen Cartesian planes before in various ways throughout the cycles. So in that situational problem, and I think it’s a really good example, the concepts are seen as completely new because they’re not usually paired together. So the students have to use their knowledge of those concepts within the problem. An application question typically is a little bit shorter, typically only has one answer. Focuses maybe on a concept that you’re doing in that specific unit. I don’t know Aliya is there…?
Aliya: You know the application question too kind of does focus on an answer, right? At one point, you do want to know that the kids have the concepts and that they’re understanding it and that they can prove to a certain extent that they know what they’re doing. So, Competency 2 is really that mathematical reasoning. It’s: ‘do you know the math? Do you know it?’ Whereas a situational problem, as Shana and I say, it takes more of a science approach. You have a problem. You’re presented with this problem and what do you think we’re going to do? What’s the plan? What do you think? How are we going to approach this? Then you test it out and if it doesn’t work, okay. Let’s go back. Let’s test something else. And Shana’s mentioning: there’s multiple answers. In a situational problem, you have that opportunity to explore. It’s more real life. It’s more whatever types of math problems you have in real life. There’s different answers that are going to be possible and so I think that competency really tries to mimic that part of it. Competency 2 is really more, in a nutshell, how do you do this math? What’s the process behind this?
Chris: Right. I love that you guys bring that into process. Go ahead Shana. I love that.
Shana: I was gonna go with that too. Something I forgot to mention before that Aliya had mentioned, is really looking at the process. In the situational problem, you’re going to focus on really looking at the student’s understanding of the problem and the process that they’re going through. I love bringing in the science aspect too. Students might go through that process of trial and error or testing out a hypothesis that they think will work in a situational problem and they might have to go back and fix it. So really, that end answer is not necessarily the focus. It’s really focusing on: Can they understand the problem? And: Can they work through the process of solving it? And really show that they understand what they’re doing.
Chris: For sure. So that they are growing their competency, right? If we go back to the old, new program that we had, competency-based is exactly that, right? Getting kids to go through that process over and over and over again and I think also, just making students realize that everything’s a process, right? Everything that we do or try to accomplish, we have to go through our process, and it’s just part of life. You can see it in every other subject, it’s the same.
Aliya: That’s it. I mean, it’s fun but I find that a lot of kids, they get – there’s that fear. There’s that anxiety with math as we talk about math anxiety. I think it comes from having a right or wrong answer. There’s more than one right answer. So, because of that, I find it allows that math anxiety to go away. I think it just depends on how you approach it. For sure, if you approach it, there’s always that – ‘Oh! But the ministry exam is like this!’ If we think about it that way, it is a daunting task. But if we really think about it as: here’s a problem, let’s try to solve this, what are we doing, and the approach that you take to it, it really does allow for that math anxiety to go away instead of adding on to it.
Chris: Yeah. That can cripple a child. Anxiety and you see that also in science areas as well. By the time the kid hits high school, that student is petrified about Math and Science. They just think they can’t do it. They have this closed mindset that I’ll never be good at it. So I think those younger ages, exactly what you guys are saying, that developing that competency in themselves, that they can solve those problems. But saying it’s one thing and doing it’s a total other thing. So we’re gonna end on this big question and you can go as out of the box as you want.
Chris: What do you guys see? Where do we go from here? What are some ways that we can get kids seeing Math as something they’re going to need in real life rather than this abstract kind of – I don’t understand kind of thing. How do we bring them closer to that in an elementary setting?
Shana: Maybe this is not so out of the box but situational problems are that real-world scenarios and I find they feel like they’re not just doing Math to do Math. A lot of the time, if we look at some of the ones that we have. Some of them are like, planning trips, going on a road trip. You can do building a house or looking at a different room so it feels really real-world. So, less abstract. They’re using the method, something that potentially they can use in the real world. So I think if we move towards that and giving them scenarios that they potentially could live through or they have lived through, that I feel the students are more connected. I definitely think that’s a positive move towards taking away the math anxiety and making it just feel like that’s something that they’re going to have to live through.
Aliya: Even like, teaching through that problem-based learning. Teaching through problem-solving instead of having, you know, here’s my lesson and then, ‘Oh, let’s give them problem-solving questions.’ It’d almost be like, here’s a problem-solving question. Let’s learn the math through this problem, giving you purpose to learn this math. It’s not just: ‘Oh, let’s just learn it because it’s part of the curriculum and I have to do it and there’s an exam at the end.’ It’s: ‘Here’s a problem. Here’s a task. Now, with this task, what are the math things you have to know and let’s learn. So I think that approach…That’s something I think I would go back if I was back in the classroom and I would change, for sure. I used to be that teacher especially in High School. You give the kids notes and then you practice. Going back, I think I would do it completely differently. I would give them the problem and say: ‘Here’s a problem. Let’s try to figure it out. What do you need? What do you need to figure this out?’ And okay, you don’t know? Let’s learn that concept now.
Chris: It seems like a little tweak but a powerful tweak. In the sense that you’re giving them onus more. Putting more on the student.I love this quote: “Less us. More them.” If we get out of their way more and give them more to play with and discover, they’re gonna get there. They’ll get there. It’s just exposure and practice really.
Aliya: And there’s a lot of intuitiveness, right? Kids have that intuitiveness. We sometimes take that intuitiveness away from them by teaching them procedure. So, you’re right.
Chris: Well, that’s a big statement.
Aliya: It is!
Chris: I agree with you though for sure. That’s a good quote there, I’m gonna keep it.
Chris: Well, I think you guys working as you do would make any Math teacher want to change. I think you’re – I’m super happy to talk with you guys and I feel the optimism. I think that we need troops on the ground with that optimism going into classrooms and supporting teachers in that way so that we can make Math a beautiful thing. Which it is. Like we say with science, it’s all around us, it’s math is all around us as well. So it’s something that’s definitely the beginning of a conversation but not the end. I want to thank you guys so much for taking some time and talking with us. I really appreciate your ideas and good luck with the rest of this school year. I hope that you guys can find a little reprieve over the March Break coming up –
Aliya: Yes! Looking forward to it!
Chris: The sprint to the end! Hopefully we’ll all be back in classrooms in the following year so we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Anyway, good luck to you guys and take care and we’ll be talking again soon.
Shana: Sounds good.
Aliya: Thank you!