An elementary math complaint…

I am sitting here sipping on some water before I have to run out the door to go pick up Lance from school and I glanced down at Lance’s stack of papers from his Tuesday folder. His grades this week were not as high as last week’s folder. Both weeks’ stacks of papers are sitting here.

I thought I would take a quick look to see what he was having a little struggle with this week so that we could give him that little shove to help him comprehend more fully the concepts. It looks like this week they worked a lot on number lines, time, and temperature across the various subjects. Some of them are even combined. I cannot tell you fully which is math or science right off the top.

Upon initial look at this one math paper, however, I am just a tad frustrated and I am sure this is a mutual feeling across parents, grandparents, and students alike. It seems to me that the focus has gone from teaching mathematics to teaching processes. Do not get me wrong, I do believe that the process of getting to an answer is important but I also believe that sometimes getting back to the absolute basics is where we screw up the most.

Some mathematics is rote memorization at its core. It is muscle memory, the finest “muscle” we have being our big ole brains. I believe that in trying to improve the way we teach children we have forgotten the fundamental root of learning – repetition. No it is not fun, but it works.

Something that I have observed over the past few years is that the teachers have spent so much time and effort in teaching the students “abstract” definitions that they have failed to make sure that the students understood the basic principles the definitions were building blocks for. Sure give my child the definition but make sure they understand it in words that make sense. My sweet little Lance can rattle off a definition of what some of these mathematical terms and processes are but he cannot always tell me how to do them or what it truly means. He knows what the definition is though. That is great except he missed the whole point and that was how to get to the answer – the solution.

I have felt for several years now that we need to quit trying to put the tried and true things in new boxes and giving them fancy new titles hoping that they will take on new understanding when all they really are is just the same old thing with more fancy wrappings to confuse us. Some things at their purest forms are easiest to understand.

Why do children need to explain how they got to particular mathematical equation? Just let them write the equation if that is what you want them to do. Why do they have to show their work on every single problem if no work is really required? We cannot assume that every child is a cheater. Multiple choice questions allows the children to choose answers that make sense and work backwards mentally. Why make a child figure out what equation to use to solve a problem without solving the problem at all?

I understand problem solving, but a lot of this can be done without confusing the child. You can teach children to solve word problems by teaching them to read critically and pick out the important information and figure out which key words are in the problem. You can put less emphasis on the process and more emphasis on the actual mathematical concepts and still arrive at the same result.

In fact you will end up with more confident students. The students will be able to read a problem, analyze it for critical information, and then problem solve to get to a correct solution. They will understand which process to use without stressing over a list of abstract definitions because they will have repetitive practice applying the knowledge they have to problems and actually solving for real solutions. The process is fine but it does not solve problems. Being able to regurgitate a definition simply means that they could memorize a series of words that has no practical application to them, being able to actually solve the problem and come to a correct solution is way more valuable.

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