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Film seeks solution to math woes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to math education in the United States, it simply doesn’t add up.

It’s a problem for the country, and Scott Laidlaw is addressing it.

Laidlaw, a former math teacher in Questa, worked with Jennifer Lightwood, a former CPA, to create the documentary “The Biggest Story Problem: Why America’s Students Are Failing at Math.”

If you go
WHAT: “The Biggest Story Problem: Why America’s Students Are Failing at Math”
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30
WHERE: South Broadway Cultural Center, 1025 Broadway SE

It’s a film that explores why students in the United States perform well in math in their elementary years, score above average until the eighth grade and then precipitously drop to the bottom tier in the world by 10th grade. This dramatic drop in competency has been attributed to a “crowded curriculum” that’s “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Despite the concerns, middle-school math curriculum remains the same.

Laidlaw traveled to Finland, which is often rated near the top in academics, to find out why students perform well there. He spoke to teachers, students and schools on the front lines.

The film interweaves Laidlaw’s story of creating “Ko’s Journey,” an online story-based math game, and the stories of teachers and schools taking part in a pilot program using the game to increase interest in math.

“I wanted to uncover the big ideas that will make the difference in our education system,” he says during a recent interview. “The U.S. is 25th out of 33 countries when it comes to education, and we felt like making a documentary would be the medium for change.”

Laidlaw was a teacher in Questa, where he taught fifth through eighth grade before he started Imagine Education. The organization was founded on the idea that pretend play and storytelling, perhaps the oldest architectures of human learning, can transform student attitudes, improve test scores and establish a solid foundation for future learning.

Through immersive environments, from multimedia platforms to live forums, the organization uses the power of story to create dialogue and experience to facilitate a paradigm shift, resulting in systematic change.

Laidlaw says by teaching math he understood firsthand what students are going through and wanted a change.

“Being in the classroom helped me see the way students learn,” he says. “I would create story problems that turned into games and it made learning easier. That’s when the idea for the documentary idea came along.”

Filming began in September 2011 in various locations around the country. Laidlaw says the crews went to schools in Calfornia, South Carolina, New York and New Mexico. Some of the footage shot in the state was in Questa as well as Shiprock schools.

“Jen and I wanted to get a wide spectrum of schools,” he says. “We wanted to capture both rural and nonrural schools. We looked at the dynamics of both and compared how the children were being taught.”

Lightwood says she hopes the documentary isn’t just an educational film that bashes the system.

“It’s taking a view of what the schools, teachers and children need,” she explains. “We’ve removed ourselves from the story and just let it run its course. What’s interesting about the film is that the narration was written as we were editing the film. What happened was that an authentic story emerged.”

Lightwood says another fun aspect to the film is that New Mexico plays a big part in the story.

“The state often comes in at the bottom when it comes to education performance,” she says. “We took some of the stories that New Mexicans are faced with and it’s part of this national documentary.”

Laidlaw says while the documentary highlights the work he’s done to help math make sense to his students through story-based games, he thinks that it creates awareness of just how important it is for educators and parents to reflect their practices.

“The negative aspects we’ve created through our culture of rewards, like memorizing facts for candy bars, is part of that, but so are the inspiring hope of solutions,” he says. “Like pretend play, narrative and manipulative environments that can actually teach the way the brain learns.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email Follow me on Twitter at @agomezART.