The Most Rigorous Math Program You’ve Never Heard Of

Ruvim Breydo, founder of Math-M-Addicts, advocates for math education focused on cognitive reasoning and problem-solving to nurture fearless, …

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In the building of the Speyer Legacy School in New York City, a revolutionary math program is quietly producing some of the city’s most gifted young problem solvers and logical thinkers. Founded in 2005 by two former math prodigies, Math-M-Addicts has grown into an elite academy developing the skills and mindset that traditional schooling often lacks.

“We wanted to establish the most advanced math program in New York,” explains Ruvim Breydo, co-founder of Math-M-Addicts. “The curriculum focuses not just on mathematical knowledge, but on developing a mastery of problem-solving through a proof-based approach aligned with prestigious competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad.”

From its inception, Math-M-Addicts took an unconventional path. What began as an attempt to attract only the highest caliber high school students soon expanded to offer multiple curriculum levels. “We realized we couldn’t find enough kids at the most advanced levels,” says Breydo. “So we decided to develop that talent from an earlier age.”

The program’s approach centers on rigor. At each of the 7 levels, the coursework comprises just a handful of fiendishly difficult

proof-based math problems every week. “On average, we expect them to get about 50% of the solutions right,” explains instructor Natalia Lukina. “The problems take hours and require grappling with

sophisticated mathematical concepts.”

But it’s about more than just the content. Class sizes are small, with two instructors for every 15-20 students. One instructor leads the session, while the other teacher coordinates the presentation of the homework solutions by students. The teachers also provide customized feedback by meticulously reviewing each student’s solutions. “I spend as much time analyzing their thought processes as I do teaching new material,” admits instructor Bobby Lee.

Lee and the Math-M-Addicts faculty embrace an unconventional pedagogy focused on developing logic, creativity, and a tenacious

problem-solving mindset over procedures. “We don’t dumb it down for them,” says Breydo. “We use technical math language and allow students to struggle through the challenges because that’s where real learning happens.”

For the Math-M-Addicts team, finding the right teachers is as essential as shaping brilliant students. Prospective instructors go through a rigorous multi-stage vetting process. “We seek passionate mathematical problem solvers first,” says program director Sonali Jasuja. “Teaching experience is great, but first and foremost, we need people who deeply understand and enjoy the reasoning behind

mathematics.”

Even exceptional instructors undergo extensive training by co-teaching for at least a year alongside veteran Math-M-Addicts faculty before taking the lead role. “Our approach is different from how most US teachers learned mathematics,” explains instructor Tanya Gross, the director of Girls Adventures in Math (GAIM) competition. “We immerse them in our unique math culture, which focuses on the ‘why’ instead of the ‘how,’ empowering a paradigm shift.”

That culture extends to the students as well. In addition to the tools and strategies imparted in class, Math-M-Addicts alumni speak of an unshakable confidence and camaraderie that comes from up to several thousands of hours grappling with mathematics at the highest levels alongside peers facing the same challenges.

As Math-M-Addicts ramps up efforts to expand access through online classes and global partnerships, the founders remain devoted to their core mission. “Math education should not obsess with speed and memorization of math concepts,” argues Breydo. “This is not what mathematics is about. To unlock human potential, we must refocus on cognitive reasoning and problem-solving skills. We are seeking to raise young people unafraid to tackle any complex challenge they face”

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We’re at this point in math right now where we are just teaching students how to manipulate numbers.” He said a question, aimed at middle schoolers, …

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When Natalia Molina began teaching her second grade students word problems earlier this school year, every lesson felt difficult. Most students were stymied by problems such as: “Sally went shopping. She spent $86 on groceries and $39 on clothing. How much more did Sally spend on groceries than on clothing?”

This story also appeared in The Boston Globe

Both Molina, a first-year teacher, and her students had been trained to tackle word problems by zeroing in on key words like “and,” “more” and “total” — a simplistic approach that Molina said too often led her students astray. After recognizing the word “and,” for instance, they might mistakenly assume that they needed to add two nearby numbers together to arrive at an answer.

Some weaker readers, lost in a sea of text, couldn’t recognize any words at all.

“I saw how overwhelmed they would get,” said Molina, who teaches at Segue Institute for Learning, a predominantly Hispanic charter school in this small city just north of Providence.

So, with the help of a trainer doing work in Rhode Island through a state grant, Molina and some of her colleagues revamped their approach to teaching word problems this winter — an effort that they said is already paying off in terms of increased student confidence and ability. “It has been a game changer for them,” Molina said.

Second grade teacher Natalia Molina circulates to help groups of students as they work on word problems. Credit: Phillip Keith for The Hechinger Report

Perhaps no single educational task encompasses as many different skills as the word problem. Between reading, executive functioning, problem solving, computation and vocabulary, there are a lot of ways for students to go wrong. And for that reason, students perform significantly worse overall on word problems compared to questions more narrowly focused on computation or shapes (for example: “Solve 7 + _ = 22” or “What is 64 x 3?”).

If a student excels at word problems, it’s a good sign that they’re generally excelling at school. “Word-problem solving in lower grades is one of the better indicators of overall school success in K-12,” said Lynn Fuchs, a research professor at Vanderbilt University. In a large national survey, for instance, algebra teachers rated

word-problem solving as the most important among 15 skills required to excel in the subject.

Teacher takeaways

Don’t instruct students to focus mainly on “key words” in word problems such as “and” or “more”

Mix question types in any lesson so that students don’t assume they just apply the same operation (addition, subtraction) again and again Teach students the underlying structure — or schema — of the word problem

Yet most experts and many educators agree that too many schools are doing it wrong, particularly in the elementary grades. And in a small but growing number of classrooms, teachers like Molina are working to change that. “With word problems, there are more struggling learners than non-struggling learners” because they are taught so poorly, said Nicole Bucka, who works with teachers throughout Rhode Island to provide strategies for struggling learners.

Too many teachers, particularly in the early grades, rely on key words to introduce math problems. Posters displaying the terms — sum, minus, fewer, etc. — tied to operations including addition and subtraction are a staple in elementary school classrooms across the country.

Key words can be a convenient crutch for both students and teachers, but they become virtually meaningless as the problems become harder, according to researchers. Key words can help first graders figure out whether to add or subtract more than half of the time, but the strategy rarely works for the multi-step problems students encounter starting in second and third grade. “With multi-step problems, key words don’t work 90 percent of the time,” said Sarah Powell, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies word problems and whose research has highlighted the inefficacy of key words. “But the average kindergarten teacher is not thinking about that; they are teaching 5-year-olds, not 9-year-olds.”

Many teachers in the youngest grades hand out worksheets featuring the same type of word problem repeated over and over again. That’s what Molina’s colleague, Cassandra Santiago, did sometimes last year when leading a classroom on her own for the first time. “It was a mistake,” the first grade teacher said. “It’s really important to mix them up. It makes them think more critically about the parts they have to solve.”

A second grader at Segue works through the steps of a word problem. Credit: Phillip Keith for The Hechinger Report

Another flaw with word problem instruction is that the overwhelming majority of questions are divorced from the actual problem-solving a child might have to do outside the classroom in their daily life — or ever, really. “I’ve seen questions about two trains going on the same track,” said William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. “First, why would they be going on the same track and, second, who cares?”

Schmidt worked on an analysis of about 8,000 word problems used in 23 textbooks in 19 countries. He found that less than one percent had “real world applications” and involved “higher order math

applications.”

“That is one of the reasons why children have problems with

mathematics,” he said. “They don’t see the connection to the real world … We’re at this point in math right now where we are just teaching students how to manipulate numbers.”

He said a question, aimed at middle schoolers, that does have real world connections and involves more than manipulating numbers, might be: “Shopping at the new store in town includes a 43% discount on all items which are priced the same at $2. The state you live in has a 7% sales tax. You want to buy many things but only have a total of $52 to spend. Describe in words how many things you could buy.”

Schmidt added that relevancy of word problems is one area where few, if any, countries excel. “No one was a shining star leading the way,” he said.

***

In her brightly decorated classroom one Tuesday afternoon, Santiago, the first grade teacher, gave each student a set of animal-shaped objects and a sheet of blue paper (the water) and green (the grass). “We’re going to work on a number story,” she told them. “I want you to use your animals to tell me the story.”

“Once upon a time,” the story began. In this tale, three animals played in the water, and two animals played in the grass. Santiago allowed some time for the ducks, pigs and bears to frolic in the wilds of each student’s desk before she asked the children to write a number sentence that would tell them how many animals they have altogether.

Some of the students relied more on pictorial representations (three dots on one side of a line and two dots on the other) and others on the number sentence (3+2 = 5) but all of them eventually got to five. And Santiago made sure that her next question mixed up the order of operations (so students didn’t incorrectly assume that all they ever have to do is add): “Some more animals came and now there are seven. So how many more came?”

One approach to early elementary word problems that is taking off in some schools, including Segue Institute, has its origins in a special education intervention for struggling math students. Teachers avoid emphasizing key words and ask students instead to identify first the conceptual type of word problem (or schema, as many practitioners and researchers refer to it) they are dealing with: “Total problems,” for instance, involve combining two parts to find a new amount; “change problems” involve increasing or decreasing the amount of something. Total problems do not necessarily involve adding, however.

“The schemas that students learn in kindergarten will continue with them throughout their whole career,” said Powell, the word-problem researcher, who regularly works with districts across the country to help implement the approach.

In Olathe, Kansas — a district inspired by Powell’s work — teachers had struggled for years with word problems, said Kelly Ulmer, a math support specialist whose goal is to assist in closing academic gaps that resulted from lost instruction time during the pandemic. “We’ve all tried these traditional approaches that weren’t working,” she said. “Sometimes you get pushback on new initiatives from veteran teachers and one of the things that showed us how badly this was needed is that the veteran teachers were the most excited and engaged — they have tried so many things” that haven’t worked.

In Rhode Island, many elementary schools initially used the strategy with students who required extra help, including those in special education, but expanded this use to make it part of the core instruction for all, said Bucka. In some respects, it’s similar to the recent, well publicized evolution of reading instruction in which some special education interventions for struggling readers — most notably, a greater reliance on phonics in the early grades — have gone mainstream.

There is an extensive research base showing that focusing on the different conceptual types of word problems is an effective way of teaching math, although much of the research focuses specifically on students experiencing difficulties in the subject.

Molina has found asking students to identify word problems by type to be a useful tool with nearly all of her second graders; next school year she hopes to introduce the strategy much earlier.

One recent afternoon, a lesson on word problems started with everyone standing up and chanting in unison: “Part plus part equals total” (they brought two hands together). “Total minus part equals part” (they took one hand away).

It’s a way to help students remember different conceptual frameworks for word problems. And it’s especially effective for the students who learn well through listening and repeating. For visual learners, the different types of word problems were mapped out on individual dry erase mats.

The real work began when Molina passed out questions, and the students— organized into the Penguin, Flower Bloom, Red Panda and Marshmallow teams — had to figure out which framework they were dealing with on their own and then work toward an answer. A few months ago, many of them would have automatically shut down when they saw the text on the page, Molina said.

For the Red Pandas, the question under scrutiny was: “The clothing store had 47 shirts. They sold 21, how many do they have now?”

“It’s a total problem,” one student said.

“No, it’s not total,” responded another.

“I think it’s about change,” said a third.

None of the students seemed worried about their lack of consensus, however. And neither was Molina. A correct answer is always nice but those come more often now that most of the students have made a crucial leap. “I notice them thinking more and more,” she said, “about what the question is actually asking.”

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