Essential Math and Science: How Can It Work?

PROBLEM: Your skateboard is stuck under a dumpster. To get it out, you have a 4′ by 6′ sheet of plywood and a curb. You weigh 150 pounds. Can you lift the dumpster to get it out, and how?

Faced with this question, students confront several of the Coalition’s nine common principles at once: they must take steps on their own, with their teacher as coach, to solve a problem that calls on math and science together. The key to making it work is adopting the central Essential Schools metaphor of “student as worker,” says CES’s Amy Gerstein, a former science teacher herself. In summer workshops and regional symposia, she is pressing teachers to abandon lecture- demonstrations so that students arrive at the principles of math and science as the fruits of their own reasoning through a series of problems.

“It’s harder than in the humanities,” she says, “but there are plenty of teachers out there proving that it can be done.” She points to Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York, where math teacher Glynn Meggison is continually developing new ways to turn students into workers without compromising a course’s content. Teachers leave the workshops Meggison helps lead with a new sense, Gerstein says, that any traditional lesson plan can be converted into a more active learning model. And they can call on a growing CES “curriculum bank” of examples drawn from successful classroom trials.

Problems like the skateboard one above usually start with the assumption that scientific inquiry demands mastery of certain math skills. Still, some teachers express worries that sequential skill development may suffer in an integrated class, and many Essential School programs still use conventional math and science classes instead.

“It didn’t quite work for us at first,” says Steve Hoffman, a math teacher at the Alternative Community School outside Ithaca, New York, whose “Inquiry and Tools” program devised the skateboard problem. “For some kids, it was still too abstract; even in small groups, they couldn’t focus for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. And especially on standardized tests, their basic sequential math skills were low.”

To solve the problem, teachers at his school separated math skills development into a separate period, identifying fifteen skill areas that students must master by the end of middle school. Working in small collaborative study groups, students have some choice as to the sequence of what they learn; and each student’s progress is tracked with a folder of work. “It’s a big management task,” Hoffman says.

Designing exhibitions of mastery that bring math and science skills together is a particular challenge. Hoffman envisions an eighth-grade exhibition where students choose a place within 500 miles of home and plan a trip there, complete with budget, mileage, routes, and library research on cost-efficient transportation and lodging.

At Central Park East, writing, research, and art are integrated into science exhibitions at either a “competent” or an “advanced” level. For example, students compile data on themselves in a “Me Book,” analyze fitness tests they carry out in class, research some family medical trait or condition, or interview a fitness specialist.

Brimmer & May’s ninth-grade science teacher, Jennifer Prileson, teaches science in a historical perspective that involves its social and cultural sides. And because math is central to what she teaches, she spends time on it alone, dealing with algebra in physics expressions, for instance. In chemistry, Prileson uses “Structured Pacing in Chemistry Education” (Kendall/Hunt), which abandons the lecturer role of the teacher in favor of individually structured laboratory-based activities. Writing and data analysis skills are an essential part of its method; so is individual teacher feedback as students progress through their chosen activities.