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Kathy Morris: Making math fun

Thursday, February 16th, 2012 | Posted by

SSU math education professor Kathy Morris is using a state grant to help public school teachers improve the way they teach math. (Jeff Kan Lee / Press Democrat)

By JOELLE BURNETTE / Towns Correspondent

Take progressive creativity, add some exponential training, and multiply with imagination. The sum total is Kathy Morris, a Sonoma State University professor who has come up with a new way to make learning math fun.

“We want every kid to think math is like ice cream,” she said. “We are on the precipice of doing something great in California.”

Morris, 46, is an associate professor in the Department of Literacy, Elementary and Early Education, helping her students learn how to teach mathematics in the elementary grades.

Using a $250,000 grant from the California Postsecondary Education Commission, she also is teaching math educators from five Northern California counties how to implement new federal math standards in their kindergarten through high school classes.

It involves adding applied mathematics to the computational skills that now dominate the curriculum.

Morris is excited by the change that will teach children how to get their heads out of the book and apply math in the real world, better preparing them for college and careers.

“It’s about making sense of your world,” she said. “(Students) will know how math can help them and not just be something to avoid.”

A math enthusiast to the core, Morris finds it upsetting when popular culture pokes fun at the subject. Under the umbrella of the federal No Child Left Behind program, math classes stressed computation rather than thinking about how to use numbers.

She considers that approach a “huge fiasco,” referring to it as “the road to purgatory paved with good intentions.”

The rhetoric behind it — wanting children to succeed — is terrific, she said, but “the ways in which we’ve gone about it have been injurious to children and to teachers. We are now in the world of the $1 calculator, yet we still spend most of our instructional time training children to do what that cheap tool can do.”

Morris points to the recent home mortgage meltdown as an example of how that approach can go wrong. People took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, Morris said, partly because schools didn’t properly teach them how to use math outside the classroom to project income, the impact of adjustable rates and the like.

“We may have taught them to compute, but not when to compute. That’s exactly what our world is demanding,” she said.

By changing the way math is taught, “You start moving into this world of (people) being curious about a situation, driving a desire to figure something out.”

Morris was raised in Marin County and played games with her parents that required her to use mathematics. She credits them with teaching her that math can be fun and creative, not a drudgery.

“I always liked math,” she said. “I was the one with my hand up quick.”

As a child, Morris enjoyed memorizing multiplication tables and carrying out computations. And at Redwood High School she encountered a group of teachers who influenced her future career.

Redwood teachers Lyle Fisher, Bill Medigovich and Roberta Koss were among the “movers and shakers” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when California’s math education was being reborn.

Koss went on to join the board of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and is known for innovative education reforms she instigated.

“It was a time when California was leading the nation,” Morris said. That’s how good the state’s math standards were.

Fisher and Medigovich inspired her with their problem-based approach to mathematics. “It was an amazing transformation from just something that I could do to something that was captivating,” she said.

Reflecting those times, she said, new standards also will include more reasoning and communicating of ideas.

While heading up the grant program to instruct math teachers, Morris also wants the general public to understand the importance of continuous learning for teachers.

Past budget cuts significantly decreased professional development days for teachers, she said, causing the actual teaching of a subject to vary from one classroom or school to the next. As a result, children’s math skills are “all over the map” by the time they reach the fourth grade.

“I firmly believe that professional development leads to better schools, better opportunities for our kids and greater coherence from grade to grade and school to school,” Morris said. “That’s what we’re lacking.”

Using Rohnert Park-Cotati Unified School District as an example, she said, “Teachers haven’t had the time to learn and grow together, coherently. They’re left to their own whim and the wind.”

Her advice to parents is to insist on a “thinking curriculum.” “Insist that students have an opportunity to develop sense-making, perseverance and reasoning,” Morris said.

When children come home from school talking about what they learned in math, ask them how and why that problem works and if there is another way to work it out.


  • eric

    Great to read about a math teacher who appears to understand that computation and concepts are not mutually exclusive skills. Our students need to understand that being good mathematicians takes understanding in both of these realms. Unfortunately, this whole politically motivated battle has put all of our math students at a disadvantage.


  • Elisabeth Shepard

    I grew up a year ahead of Kathy in Marin. I remember her being able to help me out because I am extremely curious but had a lot of trouble with math. She did get me to slow down and think about the application. I still have to remember the advice! I am not surprised she is taking her love of math and running with it.

  • Bill Rosenberg

    Yes!!! Good for you!
    We can actually teach math, not just arithmetic, in elementary school. We can teach math at the elementary school level before the students learn that they are supposed to hate it.

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