Inspire Children to Love Math & Problem Solving
By Jan Goedeke, previously published by DC Bilingual PCS
My approach to mathematics education is inspired by a quote fromveteran math educator and professional developer Marilyn Burns who said, “You can’t talk a child into learning or tell him to understand.” Math is constructivist, that is, children must play and grapple with concepts and invent ways to solve problems themselves in order to develop a deep understanding of mathematics they can apply to new and novel problems situations
Encountering the Burns quote and understanding its implications during my pre-service days of teaching transformed my relationship with mathematics and set me on the path of a life-long mission to inspire children to love mathematics and problem solving.
My background is in the arts. Those who knew me in grade school, high school or college would be shocked to learn I’ve become a math teacher: Math never made sense to me.
Like many self-proclaimed non-math-people, I grew up memorizing facts and applying procedures and formulas to abstract problems that had absolutely no relevance to my life.
The more I asked teachers to explain why or how the formulas worked, the more I confused which formula to apply to which problem, the more frustrated they became, and the more they labeled me “Not Very Smart” at math.
No child should have to experience what I experienced in the hands of very well-meaning teachers who had no idea how to unpack a discipline that represents complex, abstract ideas through a bunch of weird looking symbols.
That is the challenge and the joy of teaching mathematics—finding concrete, compelling ways to make an abstract subject visible, real and relevant, then by insisting that students figure out how and why the math they are doing makes sense.
The promise and the possibility of math education is that, at its best, it supports the development of complex, flexible thinking and the art of patient problem solving.
In short, math is good for your brain. Failure is always an option in math class, because it is through our failures and our analysis of what doesn’t work that we learn what does work.
That hard-won learning is memorable and meaningful. Stanford professor of Mathematics Education Jo Boaler believes the act of failing and reformulating stimulates brain growth much more than the act of getting things right the first time (from What’s Math Got to Do With It, a book I highly recommend all parents read).
Calculators are great tools to use in and out of the classroom, but in my opinion their use should not bypass thinking or replace the learning of how operations with numbers work.
Flexibility in manipulating numbers, understanding how numbers relate to each other, making reasonable estimates, are all elements of number sense, and number sense is essential to the ability to decode mathematics.
One might have trouble selling this to kids, but the truth is, learning how to calculate quickly, flexibly and efficiently without paper and pencil is just plain fun for most kids.
Kids are born problem solvers, they love playing with numbers, and many learn that they’re actually faster than a calculator.
That said, for a variety of reasons, some students’ struggles don’t lead to understanding according to the timeline we teachers have in mind. Teachers still have to endeavor to make abstract concepts visible and concrete for these students. For students who don’t see the connection between the math and the models, teachers can support by making these connections a bit more explicit. Some kids just need the luxury of time.
Teachers can streamline the curriculum for these students in order to give them time to learn essentials, knowing the extra time will give students the knowledge base and confidence to accelerate their learning in the future. (Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, in other words.)
In my opinion though, when students have trouble making sense of math, what they need above all is a committed listener, someone who is truly interested in their ideas, willing to see things through their eyes and from their perspective without judgment, and then can help them navigate the landscape by suggesting other things to consider and techniques to try until they are able to find their way.
I hope our math program continues to grow as one that has a solid and stable core based on the available body of knowledge around elementary math as summarized in the Common Core Standards and by experts we trust, and our research-based understanding of how students learn.
I also hope that our program is flexible enough to adapt to the students we are teaching in any given school year. That is why assessment and job-embedded professional development is a vital component of our program.
We endeavor to attract teachers who believe all children can learn, who enjoy and thrive on team collaboration and who experience and believe in the value of teaching for understanding.
In many ways I evaluate our program on the strength of our professional learning community, our earnest curiosity around how students learn, and our ability to allow students the opportunity to grapple in ways that are unique, personal, and expressions of who they are.
I evaluate our program by the degree to which students are engaged in class, and how invested they are in problem solving. When we get this balance right, our test scores have always responded favorably.
Jan Goedeke, is the Math Coach at DC Bilingual PCS.