Education Matters: Teacher training vs. time in the classroom: How Del Mar walks the tightrope

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

After all the hubbub about what some say is an excessive amount of teacher training in the Del Mar Union School District, I asked to sit in on a professional development session.

DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg enthusiastically agreed and set me up with a session for the district’s kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers on Feb. 10.

Led by Dinah Brown, the training session drew me in completely, from the first moment.

Brown, DMUSD’s coordinator of curriculum and instruction who was hired full-time by the DMUSD last year, discussed strategies that allow students to think differently than the “one right way” to solve problems.

About 30 teachers gathered around tables in groups of four or five each, generally organized by schools (the district has eight). The all-day training focused on mathematics, specifically subtraction (addition was done previously). The problem being discussed was 80-26.

Teachers shared how their students might approach the problem in various ways. Brown said kindergartners and first-graders might solve the problem by counting by ones.

“If you gave numbers that high and they don’t have that ‘ten-ness’ yet, they might count out 80 [pieces] and that’s not horrible,” Brown said. “They don’t know to use tens yet. They’re still making sense of it. But they can still solve those kinds of problems.”

They don’t have that “ten-ness” yet?

Brown said understanding the concept of Base 10 is “so very, very important.” At some point in their learning, young students will discover “ten-ness,” she said.

Brown elaborated: “How do your kids connect to Base 10? If I were to give ‘80-26’ to my first-graders, they might count by ones. Is that okay? Yeah, if they don’t have that ten-ness yet, that may be what they need to do. You may see different levels of their understanding. But this is very common.”

And on she went, involving teachers with activities, questions, ideas, strategies and videos showing young children doing math – some solving the same problem in different, and all equally valid, ways.

Prepared as I was to be skeptical, this was fascinating. I found myself immediately drawn into the presentation, which was informal, collaborative and engaging.

Brown impressed upon the teachers the need to allow children to develop their own strategies for solving problems, while at the same time providing them with algorithms that work.

“Algorithms were developed by mathematicians who know mathematics,” she said. “They already understood mathematics. But if we’re teaching this before I understand Base 10, I may be able to memorize this and produce it and do it, but I might not be building.”

Let them use the algorithm, Brown said, and don’t tell them it’s bad or wrong because it’s not.

“It’s a good strategy – it’s just not the only strategy,” she said to the teachers. “But it might not develop a Base 10 understanding that we’re looking for.”

Kids will invent their own strategies, she said, “and that’s okay, even good. You never know what strategy will make the most sense [to them].”

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