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The Biggest Story Problem – A New Documentary

I was given a chance to preview a new documentary film on the state of math education in the United States, The Biggest Story Problem: Why America’s Students are Failing at Math. The film opens with stories of Middle School students struggling in math and quotes some alarming statistics.

  • Three quarters of US students fail to become proficient in math
  • In fourth grade US kids are above average on the international math tests
    • By eighth grade they are slightly below average
      • In two years (age 15) they have plummeted
  • The drop is not happening in other countries.

The Biggest Story Problem dispels myths (it isn’t the money) and looks at the answers that have been uncovered (for example master teachers). The documentary looks at topics of game and play in the action of learning. It reinforces neuroscience’s unfolding understanding of the way the brain learns and how neural pathways form.  Stories, statistics, and interviews challenge educators to connect mathematical concepts and apply them in a context, in a story, novelty, color, and sensual dimensions, in an application where the child actually “learns” and understand the concepts. Memorization is least important (yet we (the US) rank it most important).

The documentary examines closely the attempt to integrate one solution, a game based approach to problem solving and the U.S. Common Core Math Standards for grades 5 to 7 called Ko’s Journey.   This is certainly not a film that fools you into thinking it is easy to creatively provide a context for math knowledge to be learned. The documentary portrays the frustration of implementing new methods; moments of failed technology, stuck students, and answers not in the back.

I found the film an affirmation, affirming my struggles to be a better teacher, to support master teachers working with my child, and inspire the colleagues I work beside through Duquesne and the Beaver County STEM Education Advocacy Coalition. I found the film hopeful. As difficult as these problems are to solve, we are bringing American innovation to the table and involving our children in solving them alongside of us.

One thing I found lacking in the film was the portrayal of an open source collaborative approach to the development of Ko’s journey or the teacher’s classroom experiences (and in the development of master teachers).   Am I alone in wanting to see teachers and kids helping to fix the errors in code that were causing the game to fail? Is there a role for parents and community business partners (with professional background using mathematics in varied fields) to contribute “mods”? Were any of the teacher’s blogging and finding new ways to integrate the resources and tools and make them better?  The film did touch on the collaboration that started to happen between students in the classroom, but it seemed limited to that.

Overall, I found the film thought provoking, one that made me look again at my own teaching for ways to better engage students and to remember the frustrations encountered by my son’s master teachers as they try and fail and try again and live for moments of a student’s enthusiastic grasp of a new concept. The documentary recovered, even for a moment, the wonder and joy of learning in a community that is having fun and fully engaged in the task and the urgency of addressing STEM education.

The film is available at  The producers are sponsoring a fundraising campaign with the hope to put the film in the hands of at least 20,000 secondary school teachers over the course of the next 4 weeks. I encourage you to go online and sponsor a school.  If you would like to host a small group screening of the film, discussion and workshop, feel free to contact me.



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