Two Ruth S. Ammon School of Education professors challenge the status quo in math and physical education.

By Bonnie Eissner

Watch typical preschoolers playing and one thing is obvious: these kids love to move. Most are happiest when given the freedom to roam and frolic, preferably outdoors or in large, open spaces. Many young children also gravitate toward mathematical activities—identifying and sorting shapes, building with blocks, counting.

By the time kids hit middle school, though, attitudes have changed. Physical education and math tend to be dreaded subjects, associated with demeaning or dull exercises, drills and tests.

Outer Space CartoonsThe consequences of this shift are profound. Skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity mean that nearly one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that 29 other nations outperformed the United States in high school math proficiency—up from 23 in the previous study. When more companies are recruiting internationally for jobs that require technical and mathematical expertise, the U.S. underperformance has dire economic impacts.

How can schools reverse these troubling trends? Two faculty members in Adelphi’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education have some answers.

Kevin Mercier, Ed.D., an assistant professor, has teamed up with colleagues to study student attitudes toward physical education and how to adjust them, particularly in the middle and high school years. In studies, he has found that between 6th and 12th grade, attitudes toward physical education become more negative, especially among girls. He is now studying the reasons behind the change in perception and how they can be addressed.

One driver, according to research by Dr. Mercier and his colleagues, is fitness testing. For most of us, the term conjures up vivid—often sour—memories of being required to perform push-ups, pull-ups or the mile run with or in front of classmates. When poorly implemented, these mandated tests can ruin kids’ appetites for physical education. Conversely, when effectively administered, they can lead to a lifelong interest in sports and health.

“A lot of people have written for years on how fitness testing should be accomplished, but haven’t really done a lot of data collecting on what is actually occurring,” Dr. Mercier said.

It is widely accepted, for example, that teachers can motivate students by sending fitness test results home and by working with students to develop individual plans and teach them to assess their fitness levels. From his work with a number of Long Island school districts, Dr. Mercier has gathered evidence to show that many teachers are not following through on this work. Dr. Mercier correlates negative teacher attitudes toward fitness testing with students’ poor feelings about it.

“The goal is to promote lifelong activity,” Dr. Mercier said. He added, “There are a number of physical fitness educators who do it well. It’s just not as prevalent as we would like to see.”

Barbrina Ertle, Ed.D., also an assistant professor in the Ammon School, specializes in early childhood and early elementary math education—preschool through second grade. She teaches aspiring teachers, and, on the first day of class, gives them a math test as well as a survey to see how they feel about the subject.

The results? About 85 to 90 percent of students have a fear of math, dislike math or think that they’re not good at the subject. “I’ve done this survey in other places, too, so it’s not just Adelphi,” Dr. Ertle said.

Dr. Ertle’s goal in the classroom and in her scholarly and consulting work is to change these perceptions. “Math can be fun and we should be making it fun,” Dr. Ertle said.

By fun, she means more child-centered and accurate. She helps aspiring teachers understand that certain conventions in math education are wrong and even detrimental to students. It is common, for example, for teachers to believe that students should learn to count sets of objects from left to right, the same way they read from left to right. “That just emphasizes that we don’t understand that reading is a convention, where rules are set,” Dr. Ertle said, adding, “However, math is not a convention; it’s a science. And we cannot and should not be imposing rules that do not exist. …It’s limiting [to] a child’s thinking.”

A few years ago, the government of Abu Dhabi teamed up with Vanderbilt University to create model schools as part of an overhaul of the country’s educational system. Vanderbilt, which is responsible for teacher development for the preschool and elementary schools, in turn hired Dr. Ertle to provide the mathematics training. She also has a hand in shaping curriculum. For the past three summers, Dr. Ertle has traveled to Abu Dhabi to conduct weeklong workshops with the teachers. She also returns three times during the school year.

Dr. Ertle said that, despite the challenge posed by language differences, “the children are doing amazing [in] mathematics,” and she called teachers “passionate and open to new ideas.”

“The reality is that children, before they enter school, all love mathematics,” Dr. Ertle said. “We teach them to hate mathematics.”

This piece appeared in the 2015 issue of Erudition.


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