Tinashe Blanchet's job is to make learning math fun. If you just groaned or rolled your eyes at that statement, you helped prove her point.
"Kids struggle with their attitude toward math," said Blanchet, a former classroom teacher. "Parents say, 'I'm not a math person' or 'Common Core, I don't understand it.' Overt and subliminal, it has to be addressed. We're teaching a new attitude about math."
Math phobia also can spring from experience at a surprisingly early age.
"It's the opposite (of fear) in young children, but after going through 12 years of education, at some point, it goes from being a fun thing to something to be afraid of. That happens at about the fourth grade, with testing. That's what we try to undo here at the lab. Learning hands-on is fun and exciting," Blanchet said.
The Learning Laboratory New Orleans is a nonprofit, upbeat learning environment that uses hands-on activities, projects and technology to add some sugar to the medicine of traditional teaching methods for students in third through seventh grades.
On a recent visit, kids spent minimal time sitting in desks, yet things stayed on the right side of the line between discipline and chaos. At one point, when the next activity was announced to be a knowledge-based computer game they recognized, a cheer went up.
Blanchet is the founder and "lead learner" of the Learning Lab. Its Math Monday sessions and summer Genius Camp are the results of its goal "to offer high-quality, low-cost extracurricular programs for students."
Blanchet is a former math teacher with more than 10 years of experience in the greater New Orleans area. She is a Google-certified teacher, and she also works as a national presenter for the Bureau of Education and Research, traveling the country to train teachers on using technology to enhance their instruction.
With three children, ages 9, 11 and 15, Blanchet sees education from two points of view, as a teacher and as a parent. "When I first started, I wanted to create an environment focused on just learning. Testing, bureaucracy, politics -- as a classroom teacher, it becomes difficult to focus on what's best for students, on what's important: getting kids excited about learning."
That excitement, she said, has multiple advantages: "Engagement is the best classroom management (for behavior). When you engage kids in activities that they want to be part of," they don't act out, she said.
So excitement = more learning. More learning = better behavior. And better behavior = more learning.
This summer, Blanchet received a travel grant from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to attend the 13th International Congress on Mathematical Education in Hamburg, Germany. Participants heard world-renowned scholars in math and math education and then took part in small group discussions.
Overall, she was struck by how academic concerns ignore national borders.
"I was taken aback by how many similarities there were ... like the influence of standardized testing," she said. "Anyone with a background in statistics knows how tenuous statistics can be. Statistics are not the same as causation."
Mostly, she said, the conference served to confirm what she already believed. "A positive attitude brings increased test scores. The idea that we have to teach to the test for kids to perform is not necessarily true. And that's not just in the United States."
Internationally, however, "they get more than us that mathematics isn't about finding solutions and checking the answer in the back of the book. It's about problem solving in real life, not nice clean answers.
"Creating fun, excitement, engagement -- in data-based culture, those are the things I feel like we're losing," she said. "I just spoke to a group of aspiring teachers from Tulane. I asked them, 'When was the last time someone asked you about your ACT scores?' Those really don't matter as much as we make them out to matter."
Many students do well on tests, she said, but don't believe they're good in math.
"They need the ability to teach themselves new things. Twenty-first-century skills are being overlooked in this culture of 'sit down, be quiet and do your work.' ”
The result? Kids panic when things go wrong. They won't take risks in learning. Hands-on activities are an opportunity to learn even when things don't go as planned, she said.
Blanchet acknowledges that these activities can be difficult in many school environments. Her advice to teachers, or to parents who want to get involved at home, is to start small:
- Try an activity that's tied in to something that's required learning.
- Have a hook to each lesson or unit.
- Do something long term. Make it something they work on over a semester or year. "Once they're done with a lesson, say, 'Go work on a project,' ” Blanchet said.