At the onset, what’s not to love? Two of the readings that I chose, concluded that students self-reported to enjoying math more, and having less anxiety (CTGV, 1992b; Shyu, 2000). Both readings reported that students’ problem solving skills improved, and I would speculate that the Shyu study would see even larger increases in problem solving skills had the students participated in more than one Jasper Series problem.
The main issue that the folks at Jasper are attempting to address is that many students are unable to apply microcontext (“end of the chapter”) questions, to macrocontext (“real life”/situated/anchored) problems. The literature that I read, convinced me of one thing—group work, when orchestrated well, is beneficial to most students. In “Complex Mathematical Problem Solving by Individuals and Dyads”, the younger, Grade 5 dyads, performed much better than their older (and more mathematically talented) Grade 6 soloists (Vye, 1997). Two lesser-able heads and better than one more-abled, it seems. How great is that???
I am not convinced that diving head first into Jasper methodologies is wise, however. The entire premise favours a “top to bottom” skills approach, where the focus is on higher level thinking, and to scaffold if and when needed. In my experience, this is a disastrous methodology to follow to the tee when teaching mathematics. In order for these higher level problems to be attacked, a base knowledge needs to exist. Otherwise, in the group work, one or two “hot shots” will take the lead, the students who don’t understand a stich, get pulled along, everyone advances to the next level, and sure… Everyone feels good, because the low level students had life jackets on the entire time—of course, they enjoy this approach!
Borrowing a thought from John-Steiner and Mahn’s 1996-piece, “Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development: A Vygtoskian Framework”, the authors emphasise the importance of when looking at Vygotskian Theory, to refrain from abstracting portions of the theory, which can consequently lead to “distorted understandings and applications” (p. 204). To me, the Jasper folks have abstracted portions of constructivist learning strategies, conducted studies using the best math students or studies where groups can make the struggling kids float, and declared, “Hey, we’ve made math fun and relevant!”
Many of us agree that Piaget and Vygotsky had a lot of things right in their constructivist theories. Both theorists agreed that the material world aids development due to environmental experience (Glassman, 1994). These environmental experiences are often transpiring amongst peer groups, in a social context. Can we not replicate these transformative experiences in our classrooms?
When students possess self-generated motivation to accomplish a task (due to being adequately challenged), constructivist approaches to learning can flourish (vonGlasersfeld, 1983). But here’s the thing… according to Vygotsky, the development of thought requires spontaneous (self-generative) concepts to occur in opposition of non-spontaneous concepts (Glassman, 1994). Non-spontaneous concepts can occur through peer interactions, however, they can also occur through instruction, from adult MKOs (more knowledgeable others). Vygotsky himself was privately taught by a mathematician who followed the Socratic method. He learned an incredible amount from his parents and his tutor; his own children were brought up in a similar Socratic environment living in a single room house with 11 other people (please refer to the Vygotsky timeline: http://vygotsky2016.weebly.com/).
Ultimately, I would urge educators to digest methodologies like Jasper in small quantities. These approaches are not the magic pill that will solve all of our problems. I believe that rote learning still has its place in mathematics. (Yup. I said it.) If it is the only approach that one adopts, I would ask that person to get with the program, however. We don’t want to kill the beauty of mathematics for our students, yet students moving onto academic levels of math, need to have the skill set, the automated skill set, in order to succeed and actually understand what the heck they are doing.
I’m still looking for that magic pill— it’s a quest worth pursuing, indeed! I suspect that if someone ever DOES find it though, that it will not consist of just one approach.