Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Design

Dear Gateway Families,

What does it mean to “be good at math”?

Most of us grew up in school environments that emphasized speed and accuracy using specific algorithms to solve discrete problems. If you didn’t go fast, or you weren’t accurate, then likely you didn’t think of yourself as good at math; deep understanding wasn’t necessarily considered part of the equation. Far too many children developed math anxiety during their elementary years because of this focus on a narrow definition of mathematical excellence, and as adults, their relationship with math continuous to be fraught.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to help children develop both strong skills and lasting confidence in math, and last week our Bridges trainer, Alison Mazzola, helped families understand how the math curriculum here at Gateway does that. It starts with redefining the goals and outcomes we have for students’ math learning:

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
  4. Model with mathematics
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically
  6. Attend to precision
  7. Look for and make use of structure
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

Of course we still want students to be efficient and accurate, but a broader view of math outcomes explains why our program looks so different from traditional, rote approaches. An experienced elementary grades teacher, Allison peppered her talk with hilarious anecdotes drawn from her time in the classroom, while helping the audience understand why our faculty is so excited about Bridges. It fits directly into our view that academic excellence means working both hard and smart, and that’s done by learning and then applying strategies. We also recognize that selecting the right strategy for the situation is an essential aspect of academic success. For example, counting on fingers is typically viewed as an appropriate strategy for younger children, but we often expect children to have quick recall of so-called “math facts” that are simply computation. However, Stanford Professor Jo Boaler’s important work with Youcubed.org explains why finger-counting can be an effective go-to strategy with older students who are tired, stressed, or struggling to integrate new concepts.

Bridges is based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of academic knowledge and skills in math and language arts that has been adopted by 45 states.  CCSS were developed by the National Governors Association (they are not federal standards), which believes that one way the U.S. can catch up to other countries in test scores is to have a more consistent curriculum across the states, rather than every state having its own. Though the pre-existing California State standards were already very good, the CCSS has had a positive impact on public education in some ways, such as increasing the emphasis on critical thinking and reasoning, rather than rote learning and regurgitation.

However, we feel that the CCSS leave out so many wonderful elements; for example, the language arts over-emphasizes reading informational texts, and misses out on novels, poetry, drama, lyric and other forms of creative writing. It also doesn’t fully attend to all five strands of mathematical thinking that are important in a curriculum, as defined by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: numbers and operations, data and measurement, statistics and probability, geometry, and patterns and algebraic thinking.

Gateway is proud to be members of the Independent Curriculum Group, a consortium of 200+ leading independent schools from around the country (York School, in Monterey, is another member). We keep a close eye on the trends and standards in national curriculum, and we also pay attention to child development, psychology, neuroscience, and our core institutional values to build curriculum with authentic and engaging student experiences. From science labs studying the movement of seismic waves to calculating compounding interest based on holiday shopping, our academic program weaves areas of high student interest into the curriculum to teach key knowledge and skills.

I encourage you to contact your child(ren)’s teacher with any questions you have about our curriculum, and to enjoy and participate in the curriculum celebrations that mark our year, from the Starlight sing in Kindergarten to Author Parties in the Elementary grades and the Science Fair presentations in Middle School.

Recommended reading on math and curriculum:

Jo Boaler: Youcubed.org

Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards

Cathy Seeley: Faster Isn’t Smarter

Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher: Neuroteach


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School