What Chicago parents should know about math

The recent changes in math instruction have made headlines and been the topic of viral videos and images. Since Chicago area schools are working hard to make math lessons work, educators at three independent schools share ways math instruction is evolving in their classrooms based on the latest research findings and new standards.


“One of the big developments in math education is a focus on cooperative learning. Brain theory shows that people learn better when they are teaching. You must truly understand a concept if you have to teach it,” says Erin Gutowski, an IB math teacher at Lycée Français de Chicago.

Gutowski says there is better understanding of how the brain works and processes information, which informs her teaching. “Anything I can do to change my instruction from pencil and paper and do something that makes it different from the normal situation increases the likelihood that the students will remember it,” explains Gutowski, who even has changed the pencil and pen colors students use when working on math.

Elizabeth Denevi, director of Studies and Professional Development at Latin School of Chicago, explains that understanding different learning styles means that teachers need to have various approaches available, one reason that the school is in the process of switching to the Singapore math curriculum.

“If a kid is struggling, we feel this lets us differentiate instruction in a better way,” she says.

Marjie Murphy, director of Curriculum and Instruction at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, agrees. “There can be several different ways to get to the right answer. A good teacher sees all those ways … and helps kids find the way that works best for them,” she says.


Today, teaching math is less about what to think and more emphasis on how to think. “There is less of the teacher showing the example and more of the mentality of ‘we’re all going to work on this together,’” Murphy says.

That means the role of the math teacher has shifted. “My role in the classroom is not to be the holder of knowledge but rather someone to walk beside you and lead you forward so you know in which direction to start. We want students to be the problem solvers,” Gutowski says.

Denevi says teachers also are working to combat stereotypes and the performance gaps.

“We’re tired of hearing kids say that they’re not good at math,” Denevi says. “Kids don’t have to be good at everything, but our faculty doesn’t want students selling themselves short on their math ability. We want to believe that everyone can be a good math student.”


Sacred Heart, as an independent school, is not be beholden to standards but that with the introduction of Common Core there has been a shift.

“Over the past several years, we’ve seen more independent schools looking at standards more closely and seeing that some make quite a bit of sense,” she says. That doesn’t mean, however, that dramatic changes are needed across the board.

“As we slowly but surely unpack the standards for math, we’re finding some of the things we’ve been doing for years,” she says. “There are some new concepts that we’re looking at, too.”

Murphy notes that Sacred Heart students go on to attend a variety of high schools and they want their students to succeed as freshmen, wherever they may be, and common standards can be helpful. “For the first time in educational history in the U.S. there is a focus on common, key points and that can’t help but be a good thing.”


With all the changes in math, it can be tough for parents, who learned a different way and are inclined to repeat what we have experienced.

“We want to do what we learned when helping our child, but it’s good for parents to remember that because we know the tricks doesn’t mean that’s truly how you dig out that answer,” Murphy says.

She reminds parents that math teachers do have valid reasons for instructing the way they do. “Sometimes you need a lot of steps to truly understand it and helping our kids get to a deeper understanding and it’s more than rattling off equations.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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