Masha Gershman: What Can We Learn From The Russian Approach To Math Education?

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 1:57 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Don't Fear Math.

About Masha Gershman's TED Talk

About Masha Gershman

Masha Gershman is the director of outreach at the Russian School of Mathematics, a K-12 afterschool mathematics program with a mission to instill every child with a strong foundation and appreciation for mathematics. The schools are located throughout the United States.

The schools were co-founded in Boston in 1997 by Gershman's mother, Inessa Rifkin, when Gershman was in sixth grade.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about math.

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RAZ: And what if the key to understanding math doesn't actually come down to whether you're a math person, but instead depends on the way you're introduced to math as a kid? So, Masha, first of all, please introduce yourself. Tell me your name.

MASHA GERSHMAN: Sure. My name is Masha Gershman.

RAZ: And what do you do?

GERSHMAN: I am the director of outreach for the Russian School Of Math.

RAZ: Tell me, what is the Russian school of math? How do you describe it?

GERSHMAN: So RSM, or the Russian School of Math, is an after-school math enrichment program for kids in grades K through 12. And for us, math isn't kind of this collection of concepts or skills. It's actually a tool of mental development. And everything that we do - the whole way that we teach really stems from that base idea.

RAZ: The Russian School of Math program was founded here in the U.S. by Masha's mother, Irina, but the idea behind it came from Irina's own experience growing up. Here's Masha Gershman on the TED stage.

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GERSHMAN: From the 1950s through the 1980s, my parents were growing up in the Soviet Union. In the midst of the Space Age, they needed to grow a generation of minds who could out-innovate and out-create the United States. Early development of abstract thinking was vital. A core belief in Soviet culture is that a child's potential is not preset at birth. The mind could be developed.

So acclaimed mathematicians and psychologists and scientists began to build a system of education that would develop minds who could thrive in the world of the unknown. And what these academics uncovered is that math is the best tool to serve that development. The next question was how. How could you teach math in such a way that a child could look at a problem in which the concepts, skills and techniques involved were unclear and approach it like a puzzle?

RAZ: So how did they come up with a - an approach or a concept that would actually do that?

GERSHMAN: So, I mean, I think that it was based on a lot of kind of different tenets that existed at the time. So they basically started to introduce high-level abstract concepts early that would very quickly build into algebra. But kids obviously didn't realize that they were learning algebra. Kids are profound thinkers, even in toddlerhood.

For years, they're able to kind of abstract from the world around them and understand and experiment. And then for some reason, when they hit kindergarten, our perspective shifts. And we think that we have to kind of break everything down into bite-sized pieces and not overwhelm them. But basically the Soviet methodology stems from the idea that it's actually the opposite. Kids are not only ready and already thinking this way, but they're actually more adept at learning these concepts and becoming fluent in them because their minds are so flexible and so malleable.

So I think that was one big thing and one big difference. The second is this idea of environment. And this was something that I think permeated through not only the classroom but also Soviet culture, where - my parents always say that the winners of Math Olympiads in Russia were the rock stars. They were the people that kids looked up to. And there was this kind of this fervor of mathematical culture. There were math circles and math magazines. And basically, knowing math, fluency in math was cool.

RAZ: So the assumption from the beginning was every child has the potential to be great at math, we just have to teach them in the right way.

GERSHMAN: Yeah. Every child has the potential to be fluent in math. And this is something that my mom always repeated when she came to the United States. She couldn't understand why people were so comfortable admitting that they're not math people or not fluent in math. But no one would ever admit that they can't read. To her, the two were the same.

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GERSHMAN: Many people point to the various Soviet firsts - first satellite, first dog in space, first man in space - as a testament to the success of this system of math education. But I don't really think that's fair. These were the achievements of a small collection of great minds. A better proof of concept, if you will, was the experience of Soviet immigration. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the Soviet Union before its collapse, my parents among them. Suddenly, they were forced to navigate an entirely new world entirely alone. For these immigrants, math was a lifeline.

A few years after emigrating from Belarus to Boston, my mother came home from work and saw my brother working on his math homework and saw that he couldn't add two fractions with two different denominators. She saw that not only could he not do this, but he also emphatically insisted it was impossible and refused to continue the question further.

This was a turning point for her, and she decided to leave her job to tutor him in math. And soon after, she and a fellow teacher partnered to open the Russian School of Math, an after-school math enrichment program.

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RAZ: I mean, here's the thing, right? When we think about math education today, like what you're describing, if you went to somebody in Russia now and you said, hey, we have this radical concept we're introducing in the United States, they would say, what are you talking about? This is totally normal, right?

GERSHMAN: Yeah, absolutely. It's radical for the United States, but it's not radical in general. In a traditional American public school system, basically what happens is kids learn very basic material all throughout elementary school, and then suddenly, incredibly complex material is thrown at them. And then kids are basically left to think, OK, well, if I can't make that mental leap, that must just mean that I'm not good at math. So I give up.

I think it's really a disservice that we do to them by not introducing them to these kind of higher-level concepts because they're capable of it. They're better at it. And the earlier you start, you know, the more fluency they develop such that, once they hit middle school and high school, these things are just a natural progression. They're not hard.

RAZ: That's Masha Gershman. She's the director of outreach at the Russian School of Math. You can see her entire talk at ted.com Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.