Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday's Five - How to Talk About Math

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

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I spent a lot of time thinking about teaching math this week.  Our district is struggling to develop an action plan for transitioning to the Common Core Curriculum from the current Pennsylvania Standards, and I've been reading a few books on elementary math teaching.  While some of those thoughts are fresh in my mind, I wanted to focus this week on ways teachers (especially elementary teachers) can promote mathematical discussion in their classrooms.

Too many times our classrooms resemble ping-pong tables.  We ask a question. (Ping)  A student gives and answer. (Pong)  We tell them whether they are correct or not. (Ping)  Then we repeat the cycle over and over again.  There's a lack of in-depth discussion about math.

After all, math is not about numbers or right answers.  We've got calculators and computers for that.  Math is about thinking and solving problems.

The books I've been reading are from a company called Math Solutions (Full disclosure - Math Solutions sent me these materials for free, but I do not currently have, nor have had in the past any kind of financial  agreement with them.)  Their mission is to help K-8 teachers teach math in a way that promotes understanding rather than focusing on using procedures to get a correct answer.  I really like what I've learned about them so far and the fact that they aren't a textbook company or a program that's being touted as the answer to your standardized test score problems.  Some of five suggestions below were influenced by what I've read.

  1. Stop being scared of math. - The biggest thing we can do to promote mathematical discussion and understanding in our classrooms is to stop treating math as if it's something hard to understand and difficult for most adults.  It's not if it's taught correctly.  Why is it acceptable for an elementary teacher to say that they couldn't possibly pass an 8th grade math test, but not acceptable for that same teacher to claim that they can't read on an 8th grade level?  They are both unacceptable.  
  2. Focus on the meaning, not on the procedure. - For example, when teaching division, stop trying to get kids to memorize that they should divide, multiply, subtract and bring down.  They're going to forget it anyway (ask any 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th grade teacher and they'll back me up on this).  Instead focus on what it means to divide.  Explain that you are putting things into groups.  Ask them to come up with a story that fits the division problem. Those discussions will promote your students' understanding infinitely more than a cute story about how Dead Monkeys Smell Bad, or any other memorization of procedure you push upon them.  
  3. Give students problems that don't have a simple answer. -  "What's the healthiest vegetable?" is a much better problem than "Carrots have x calories per serving.  How many calories are there in 8 servings?"  The first problem promotes a lot more thinking, discussion, research, and debate.  It also will lead to a whole heck of a lot more math, and it's a lot more interesting.  You won't find questions like that in a textbook, which brings me to #4.
  4. Get away from your textbook. - Textbooks are often a crutch that holds us back in elementary schools.  There are a plethora of real problems out there in the world that both require math and have relevance to our students.  Work towards solutions to those problems.  Discuss them and demand that your students discuss, debate, and research them.  Your students will gain skills they'll need in life, motivation, and a sense of purpose in addition to learning math. 
  5. Make the question "why?" the one you ask all the time. - I wrote a whole post on this, so I'll keep it brief here.  Students must know that they will have to understand math well enough to explain their thinking to others and not just spit back a correct answer.  When our classroom expectations rise to this level, students will rise to meet them.  There is no more important question to ask.
Now it's your turn.  How do you promote math discussion in your classroom?  There are certainly more ways than the five I listed.  What barriers do you see in implementing the ideas I'm suggesting?  Why do elementary teachers seem to view math so negatively?  How can we get them to change that view?  Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below, and pass the post on to others who feel strongly about math.  I'd love to hear their thoughts as well.  


  1. I like to discuss the history of math with my second graders. We talk about how the number zero came about and how math changed when it was "invented". We also talk about how ancient cultures did math and the pros and cons of their methods. I also talk to them about how our current systems of measurement came about. They love to learn about the history of math and it helps them understand the concepts better.

  2. ksquirkyteacher,
    I love the cross-curricular integration! That's a great way to get kids talking about math, and discussing why the number zero was needed is a great way to build number sense and understanding of our base-10 system. Thanks for sharing! -Mike