Challenging Problems and Interesting Solutions: Curricular Change in Bay’s Math Program

Math at The Bay SchoolJoin Academic Dean Andy Shaw for a new blog series that provides an in-depth look at academics at Bay. For his first post, Andy highlights Bay’s math program and its recent curricular changes.

These days, it’s not uncommon for an older student or an alum to drop by my office to remark, “Math’s different now…my little sister is in Math 2, and it’s totally different from the course I took!” Bay’s teachers are always experimenting with a variety of ways of teaching but, because Bay’s math program has always been one of our most innovative, progressive, and risk-taking programs, Bay’s math teachers are particularly familiar with the process of asking hard questions, seeking evidence about outcomes, researching other approaches, and working towards constant growth – values that we work hard to inculcate in students and model throughout our community.

After a number of years implementing a revolutionary math program built purely on investigation-based pedagogy, Bay’s math program is now in a period of change and reinvention. Our school has grown and changed over the past decade; our math teachers are accordingly in the process of re-envisioning our program. The math department is implementing a variety of approaches which remain true to our goal of helping students learn to think like mathematicians but which simultaneously provide more diversity of style, more differential challenge, and more skills reinforcement to support our focus on critical thinking and problem-solving.Math at The Bay School

Students have more freedom these days in terms of with whom they work and which problems they work on – meaning that more appropriate challenge is available to each and every student. Teacher-led discussions are more common; so are more challenging problems with less of what teachers call “scaffolding.”  Students in Calculus and Analysis of Functions classes are using textbooks for the first time this year, not as scripts for the course, but rather as references that allow class time to be used less for unpacking the nuts-and-bolts and more for application and in-depth problem-solving. Students in all classes are using an online homework system to review problems from trimesters and courses past, so as to keep the basics sharp, increasing algebraic fluency so students can tackle rich problems with more facility and fluency (and supporting higher standardized test scores along the way).

Math at The Bay SchoolAs a school we’ve learned a lot about curricular development through the work of the math department. This work is hard and requires significant time. It brings up creative tension. It requires deeper teamwork and closer relationships. And it’s iterative: each round of tinkering gets us closer to the ideal math curriculum, but simultaneously highlights new questions to investigate and new ideas to try.  With every new innovation, every round of improvements, however, we get closer to our goal: producing students who think, speak, and breathe mathematics not as a set of recipes to follow but as a set of tools to employ in problem-solving. This kind of learning is hard work, for teachers as well as students, but doing so not only allows us to be even more successful in growing young mathematicians. It also helps us model for them what reflection, iteration, and growth are all about.

– Andy Shaw, Academic Dean