They are who we thought they are and we let them off the hook.
Dennis Green (1949-2016)
It has been eleven years since the late NFL coach Dennis Green unleashed his now infamous rant following his Cardinals 24-23 loss to the Chicago Bears on a Monday night game. The Bears entered the match with a 5-0 record where Green’s Cardinals were sitting at 1-4. Despite their track record, the Cardinals had risen to the occasion and stripped the Bears offense while holding a solid line of defense on the other side of the ball. After having easily led the game up until the late fourth quarter, the turning point came as Edgrrin James fumbled the ball, resulting in a Bears touchdown followed by an 83-yard punt return for a second score within minutes. The game, which was easily controlled by the Cardinals, had now spiraled into a chaotic series of events that ripped the win from the dominant team that day.
Following the game, a normally composed and measured man, Green could not contain his frustration over the errors that led to the Cardinal’s loss and the rant ensued during the post game interview. This was not indicative of Green’s seventeen-year tenure in the NFL. He was the epitome of quiet success being one of the first black coaches in both the college and professional ranks, clearing the path for future coaching prospects of varied races and backgrounds. He studied under the legendary Bill Walsh and was later a mentor to great coaches Brian Billick and Tony Dungy. Dennis was known as a strategist, carefully planning and preparing his staff and players. The planning had been done and lessons were learned from the first meeting between these teams in the pre-season. All of his work and effort were starting to pay off that day and then an unforeseen disruption – a fumble.
This idea of disruption draws parallels in our world as educators. Today, there is a considerable amount of effort being put into supporting mathematics instruction in the wake of depressed provincial testing scores. Systems are in place to support students, staff and boards across the province. Declining mathematics scores are our fumble, disrupting our careful plans by forcing us to find alternatives and answers that are outside of the formula that improvement will follow a surge in funding. This disruption has placed us in a period of transition where we are being challenged to modify our teaching strategies to better meet the needs of our students. Added to this is the recent announcement that a curriculum overhaul is in the works. Will this overhaul include more prescriptive math scheduling with increased time dedicated to math instruction? Will the new directives include strategies to support conceptual development or more traditional rote learning grounded in a rigid scope and sequence? Will manipulatives be mandated? What place will collaborative problem solving have in this re-envisioned structure?
We may be entering into a period of uncertainty, a period of transition in mathematics instruction. For over a decade we put considerable effort into creating a balanced approach to language instruction. It would be unthinkable to imagine an elementary classroom without guided reading, both procedural and creative writing and an environment that celebrates both. Yet we often see mathematics instruction based on one of two courses of thought, teaching mathematics for conceptual understanding versus teaching mathematics for procedural fluency and the mastery of basic facts. I have heard and participated in all of the debates. Do we revamp the curriculum to highlight procedural mathematics for students in kindergarten through grade two and then slowly include conceptualization starting in grade three? Do we increase the amount of time spent on the number sense and numeration strand? Do we push for a blended curriculum where the strands are not taught in isolation?
I believe the answer lies in the same formula that supported province-wide improvements in EQAO literacy test scores – balance. School boards promoted, supported and mandated a balanced approach to language instruction. Time, effort and funds were expended to ensure that each classroom had the resources and supports to make balanced instruction happen. A balanced approach to math instruction would ensure that every student would receive instruction in the ‘basics ‘ of mathematics as well as the application and conceptual understanding that supports problem solving.
The best analogy to support this idea comes from retired math professor Dr. M. Robinson from Lakehead University. We are fortunate to have Dr. Robinson visit the grade seven students on a regular basis to challenge their thinking and to support the notion that we are all mathematicians. During his visits he presents the students with five problems that require both procedural and conceptual understanding and a good dose of logic in order to find the solution. He always makes a point of finding me and my vice –principal to give us a copy of the questions and to challenge us to solve them before the students do. During a visit last school year, Dr. Robinson tracked me down in the school to see how far I had gotten with the questions. I invited him to join me back at my office where I asked him about his thoughts on the best approach to math instruction including the idea of balanced instruction. He asked me to imagine the NHL player Sydney Crosby receiving a pass and approaching the blue line. Crosby has two choices, he can determine if he has a clear shot at the net to complete the play himself or if there is a better opportunity to pass the puck and set up a play for one of his teammates. At that moment Crosby is not thinking about his skating, his stick handling, or his position relative to his teammates and the opposing team. He doesn’t have to think about these elements of the game because they are innate, already mastered and left to intuition and muscle memory. Dr. Robinson went on to say that we could not expect students to tackle complex problems if they do not have the necessary basic skills and foundational knowledge. Students need to practice their math skills and then be guided and supported as they explore complex or multi-step problems. There has to be a balance in teaching and support in order to realize the level of achievement we expect, standardized or not. And like Crosby in order to maintain and improve your skills you need to practice the basics daily. Yes, I felt validated in my thinking.
So where does this leave us? We know every student can improve and achieve and every student can envision themselves as a mathematician in their own right. They are who we think they are, capable and willing. They just require support and well planned instruction to realize success. Dennis Green spent the rest of his career the same way as he started by strategizing and preparing his team and mentoring other leaders. He was able to laugh at his misstep and did not allow himself to be defined by it. We must do the same. Regardless of past difficulties or future challenges, we need to accept this period of transition and focus our efforts on improving our practice and offer a balance to math instruction. Instead of waiting for a mandate, let us establish our own by refocusing our efforts to support both procedural fluency and conceptual understanding. We must balance our instruction practices while protecting dedicated math blocks and searching for creative ways to collaborate and share best practices. And remember both hands on the ball as you cross the goal line, coach is watching.