Math education has changed immensely since the days when I was in elementary school in the 80s. We were taught to memorize the basic math rules and to use them to solve pages and pages of equations. It didn’t really seem to matter if we understood the concept or used multiple strategies to solve the problem, and we certainly were never asked to defend our positions or discuss our theories.
Fortunately for me, I was always an “A” math student, yet I still struggled to apply my knowledge when I was introduced to unfamiliar situations and concepts. Teachers didn’t really focus their energies in that direction anyway, probably because they, too, weren’t taught that way. Teachers often seemed to make stark decisions; if you knew the shortcuts and could do math really quickly, you were good at math and if it took you a bit longer or struggled with memorization, you were not. As a student you were made to quickly feel the same.
It is important to recognize that students learn in varied ways and at different paces. And we know that what works for one child may be very different from what works for another. Frankly, while true for all subjects, perhaps this is never more obvious than in a math class.
Education research abounds describing that for children to internalize and making meaning from what they learn, it must be relevant. Think math games with eye-catching candy boxes or math tasks that involve sale flyers from a shopping mall. Studies show that the more deeply imbedded a concept is in a context that makes sense to the student, the better they will understand and continuously use that concept.
Rather than asking a question with one distinct answer, it is important to structure math questions that invite many routes to the answer, inviting inquiry and debate among the students.
What we’re seeing now is a transition to a more collaborative approach, where students construct their own learning as they notice, document, and discuss their strategies for finding the right answer to an equation with one another.
For example, rather than asking the sum of two dimes and seven pennies, instead the questions could be phrased as, “how many ways can you make 27 cents? Prove it!” In this instance, children are asked to construct their own learning rather than simply provide the solution to a pre-scripted problem.
This is such an exciting time to be both a math student and teacher, as new ways to make concepts interesting, contextual, accessible, and most importantly fun, are emerging. I encourage you to engage often in math discussions with your children. Challenge them to prove their thinking or to solve a number problem in a different way. You may find that the possibilities are endless.
Lisa Oberstein is the Assistant Head of School at The Caedmon School. She previously served as the Curriculum Coordinator at The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, and has taught elementary-aged children in New York City, Washington, and in California.