Yesterday two colleagues, Jared Bennett and Gerry Smith, shared an interesting video. It’s worth the 45 seconds it will take to watch.
Now, I am a pretty vocal proponent for the need for meaningful math in our classrooms. The phrase “Hey, let’s use the textbook to create a good math lesson” rarely, if ever, crosses my lips. Students should have the opportunity to develop their understanding of numbers and mathematical concepts in ways that really make sense to them. Encouragingly, in the last several years we have made some changes to how we teach math to get closer to this. There has been greater use of manipulatives, encouragement of non algorithmic solutions, demonstrating understanding in multiple ways. But is it enough?
Coincidentally, today I also received my youngest daughter’s EQAO results (Ontario’s standardized testing)from last spring. If you haven’t seen the parent communication from EQAO before, it not only provides results but also explains how parents can support their child. One point under mathematics struck me as an interesting one. It reads: “Let your child know that you think mathematics is important”.
That suggestion was intended for parents, but I would think it is equally important to educators as well. The makers of that nifty new math app clearly don’t think math is important enough to learn. I guess it has me wondering how important is it to educators if your main method of teaching math is the assigning of textbook-like tasks?
It made me think of when I learned to drive. I practiced parallel parking many, many times and crossed my fingers when I got to that part of my test. In the years since that day, I can probably count on one hand how often I have actually parallel parked. I cringe at the thought of having to do it. I only practiced enough to pass. Parallel parking is hard and just not important to me.
How many of our students say math is hard and just not that important to them? How many of those same students practice enough to pass the test and then promptly leave all that learning behind? How many parents and teachers perpetuate that idea by providing tasks that just help them pass the test?
I don’t want our students to be parallel parking mathematicians. Encouraging parents to stress the importance of math is a great suggestion from EQAO, but the educators providing those students with the tools to approach mathematics should be developing some better strategies too.
With that in mind, here are some of the strategies I think are our responsibility.
1. Real World Math Opportunities. I know, I know, this one is highly debated by people. But here’s the thing. Parallel parking isn’t important to me because I don’t use it. Those textbook questions rarely convince me that it is something important enough to learn. Real world…and I mean REAL life applications, not a phoney word problem encouraging me to calculate at what point Train A will pass Train B, give students a glimpse into how much math permeates their world. Even more importantly, I think real examples show students how math is often more complex and multi-faceted than textbook examples would have us believe. If we know student ability to persist in task is important to success, those real world examples also give students those opportunity to persevere.
2. Making it Interesting. Full disclosure. I cringe when people tell me that they are creating a board game for math. I’m not against board games per say, but I am when this is the main example of real world that we can come up with. Having said that, I do agree that Games, not just board games, can encourage enthusiasm in students. If the game is making math interesting AND is actually making it more meaningful then I promise not to cringe so much. But don’t just stop at games, there are other ways to make math interesting to them, including incorporating personally relevant context, linking to other learning, and letting students help create the learning to be done.
3. Make Math a Thinking Sport. Apparently this post is becoming a bit of a confessional for me, so here goes. Something else that makes me cringe is the phrase “Use pictures, numbers & words to show your answer”. When this mantra becomes a checklist that students use to fill a page with little thought about how each of those elements add to the reader’s understanding of the learner’s thinking then we haven’t set students up for very rich learning. It becomes the primary equivalent of a mysterious algorithm that you just plug in the numbers and hope for the best. Instead, I think our students will be better math students if we teach them that math is about thinking and understanding first, and finding the right answer a distant second. Teach students how to question, challenge, explain, explain in another way, compare and reflect. Devote major portions of learning time to these processes and good answers will follow.
There are other great strategies to make our students better mathematicians. What are some of your must haves in a math program to avoid the curse of “parallel parking unlearning”?