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Curriculum CenterSheila Tobias:
Re-Thinking Teaching
Math, Science

Share Author and educator Sheila Tobias long has been known for her research in the areas of math anxiety and math and science instruction. She also has teamed up with Worcester Polytechnic Institute for a program that encourages improving math and science education at the secondary level. Tobias talked with Education World about her approaches to teaching math and science -- and about teaching in general. Included: Advice from Sheila Tobias about teaching science and math.

Educator Sheila Tobias is the author of the long-selling 1978 book She also has explored the reasons otherwise intelligent students avoid college-level science in three books, (1997).

Tobias, who has worked in fields related to women and science and women and mathematics, currently is the outreach coordinator for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Science Master's Initiative.

As part of a joint program with Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, about enhancing math and science education, Tobias recently spoke to high school mathematics and science teachers in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. She also talked with Education World about her approach to teaching -- and to teaching math and science.

Education World: In recent years, teachers have been urged to accommodate students' different learning styles, but, in reality, it is almost impossible to meet the needs of each individual student. What is the middle ground for teachers?

Sheila Tobias: I prefer the phrase learning preferences to learning styles, because "preferences" conveys that these are willed and not cognitive differences -- and that they are not immutable.

Teachers can't accommodate every student's learning style in classes of 20 or more. A middle ground is to encourage students to recognize their learning preference(s) and then to transpose material into a form they understand best. For the longer term, students should be encouraged to learn to stretch their own learning preferences to include other types. That can be done by enlarging the kinds of questions teachers ask students, and the kinds of answers they solicit from students. Exam questions and homework assignments are good places to start to stretch them.

EW: What is the best way for teachers to introduce students to new learning styles or preferences?

Tobias: Depending on the age of the students, teachers could give a short learning styles inventory and have students measure their own learning preferences. Then students could discuss a learning preference in terms of how it might limit them if they ever wanted to study outside their comfort zone. A little information has its dangers, however, unless the teacher makes very clear that these are preferences (habits) and not unchangeable cognitive attributes.

The nightmare scenario is when a student announces on the first day of class: "I'm an auditory learner. Don't expect me to take notes." The teacher's response should be: I will help you learn to learn in a different mode for your sake, not mine, because you will be expected to take notes in college and from note-taking you will learn to write better.

EW: Can attempts to accommodate different learning styles (preferences) hurt students in the long run?

Tobias: For non-learning disabled students, too much accommodation to their learning preferences can be detrimental if it encourages them to stay within what I call a "comfort zone" and not to venture forth. They also may expect throughout their lives that their idiosyncrasies will be accommodated. This certainly will not be the case on the job. Successful professionals know that they do best at school and at work when they have a variety of learning strategies upon which to draw. Knowing which one will work best in any particular situation is a skill that comes with experience in being outside their comfort zones. In time, their comfort zone is much expanded.

EW: You have written extensively about math anxiety. Should mathematics and science be taught differently to avoid some students developing an aversion to them?

Tobias: The teaching of math and science suffers from being all scales and not enough music. The emphasis on skills, facts memorization, and mastery very often kills curiosity and interest, even though it is necessary. Better to vary problem solving with discussion about applications that show the power of mathematics and science to provide analysis of complex situations.

EW: What is at the heart of math phobia?

Tobias: The heart of math phobia as I researched it is lack of confidence. In the case of women and girls, this has to do with feeling that "math is for boys" or in the case of minority members, for "people unlike me." Lack of confidence contributes to lack of experience and practice, and this in turn erodes confidence still more.

When girls succeed at a math lesson or on a math quiz, they attribute their success to luck; boys attribute it to their own inner ability. When girls fail, they attribute their failure to a lack of ability; boys attribute theirs to a lack of effort. That's why even girls who do well in mathematics in school don't develop the kind of confidence males do. Teen-age boys along with girls' parents send out many signals to girls that math is a male domain. Even boys who have difficulty with math stick it out because they believe it holds the key to careers they want. Girls are permitted to quit.

EW: Why do math and science seem to be the hardest subjects for many students to grasp?

Tobias: Math and science seem hard because, as currently taught in the lower grades and the first two years of college, they put a premium on finding the single right answer -- an effort that makes many students nervous about being wrong. Also math, in particular, is taught in the lower grades in a timed environment. With the clock ticking the minutes away, it is especially hard to concentrate and to open one's mind to the nuances of a problem.

It is possible to teach the precision of mathematics and science by going from answers to questions (rather than just questions to answers), which rewards students who have divergent, imaginative approaches. A third reason these subjects are hard is that they are "vertical." If you miss something early, you feel lost and unable to fill in the gap.

This e-interview with Sheila Tobias is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.