Graduate School

Hal Melnick Teaches Math in China: Coals to Newcastle?

Posted by Michael Hansen on July 29, 2011

From May 13-21, 2011, Dr. Hal Melnick, a member of the Bank Street Graduate Faculty, provided professional development and support for teachers implementing progressive math programs at the Tsinghua International School in Beijing, China. Before he began his work, he had to justify and explain Bank Street's progressive math approach to both the parents and the teachers in the primary and secondary schools.

The Challenge ...

Says Melnick: "My challenge was that on the latest international comparative tests, China far surpassed the United States. So both the teachers and the parents needed to know what this American program could do for their children, and to be reassured that their children were not being harmed by this 'different' math program."

... In a School Established by Bank Street Alumna Debbie Kurtzberg ...

Melnick had been invited to Tsinghua by Debbie Kurtzberg, director of the Primary Division, and a 2009 Bank Street graduate. Because Tsinghua International School is a new school, Kurtzberg was able to focus the curriculum on the Bank Street Developmental Interaction model, including constructivist math educational program and a strong interactive social studies component as the core of the curriculum.

...That Follows the Math Mandate from The Chinese Ministry of Education

"Parents needed to know that since 1990 the Chinese Ministry of Education has stipulated that children be able to apply their math learning to open-ended problems like those I did with them. My research on this leads me to conclude that our progressive constructivist math programs (very different from the traditional math generally taught in United States classrooms) is a healthy marriage between ancient Chinese approaches and the new market economy demands for new hires in China," says Melnick.

Melnick adds: "While some might think we were bringing coals to Newcastle with our math program (since the Chinese rate so high in math), I think our 'coals' actually fueled a fresh approach that can engage more students in successfully learning math."

Melnick on Children Working Collaboratively and the Importance of Mistakes

"One day we had fifth graders work in groups according to four cooperative learning rules we introduced to them. We gave them the Apple Tarts problem. While the kids were learning to collaborate and were planning their math presentations, I walked around and interviewed three or four groups. A theme emerged. In addition to good math reasoning, the kids kept referring to making 'accidents' during the problem-solving process. I decided to capitalize on that idea during their presentations since mathematicians actually regard mistakes as 'opportunities for learning.' The constricting goal of 'perfectionism,' which I had heard so often from the parents at Tsinghua was suddenly offered a new perspective. They were startled at the idea of mistakes as 'opportunites,' but then quickly understood. As always, I was struck by the varied aspects of learning that occur when we entice students to work in a collaborative manner, to invent solutions to complex problems, and to listen and learn from each other." 

Rules for Cooperative Group Learning

  • You are responsible for your own work and behavior.
  • You must be willing to help any group member who asks.
  • You may ask a teacher for help only when everyone in the group has the same question.
  • Everyone in the group should be ready and able to share the strategies your group used to find the solution to the problem.
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