I have long known math needed a makeover. I knew this as a teenager when I tutored my classmates through algebra 2. I knew it again in college when I had to put forth a ton of effort to find a calculus 2 or 3 class that did NOT require a graphing calculator (because I didn’t know how to use the darn things!). I knew this, and it is what drove me (eventually) to the field of education. Now, many years have passed – remember, not your typical grad student here – and I still think this.
I used to think it was the presentation of math that was problematic. Teachers coming at students with new material and an introduction of “This is going to be hard, but….” Well, guess what? Your students stopped listening after the word hard. And then, because your students stopped listening, you entered the vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because it’s hard to learn math when you don’t even listen.
Mind you, many of the cool techniques and manipulatives and curricula were not in play when I was in school. We were lucky to have those counting blocks! But then, I had kids. And when I saw what my kids were learning, I was like, “What?”. Some of it was pretty ridiculous, and I still think this too. I mean lattice for multiplication – what is THAT?
So when I hopped on to Ted, I found a presentation from Dan Meyer about math makeovers, I had to watch. He presented a great synopsis of the current state of mathematics instruction in a very humorous way. And I couldn’t agree with almost everything he said more than I do.
My only question is related to one of his clues that let us know we are teaching math reasoning wrong. He suggests an aversion to word problems is one of these clues. And while I suspect that most kids hate word problems because they require a little more work than other computational efforts, there are a quite a few kids with reading disorders that may have an impact on their ability to work word problems. However, Mr. Meyer’s experience is at the secondary level, and I’ll be working with elementary kids, so maybe this notion has already been considered at that point.
His explanation of what happens with learning from our mass assigned textbooks really interested me. The problems our kids get in their texts are silly. They have all the given information provided for them. Then all they have to do is plug those numbers into a formula. What does that teach them? But Meyer has a great solution and I loved it! He reviews problems for current lessons and then changes them…or rather fixes them. He removes all that given stuff and makes the kids work for it. Because how often does any problem in the real world present itself with all the needed information given? NEVER!
Meyer quotes filmmaker David Milch who descirbes the current state of things as an “impatience with irresolution”. Kids want that instant gratification. They are so used to having details handed out to them. And as a result, we now have kids who can’t be patient problem solvers. But, this is exactly what they need to be successful in life, even if they don’t go into a mathematically inclined field. The issue is, as Meyer describes it, that math makes sense of the world.
So how, then, do we solve this conundrum? Meyer offers 5 steps to promote patient problem solving:
- Use multimedia.
- Encourage student intuition.
- Ask the shortest question you can.
- Let students build the problem.
- Be less helpful.
With respect to the first suggestion, this makes complete sense. Kids love multimedia. And it gives them a chance to see things in true real-life format. Real-life is always better than abstract, especially when it comes to math. The other suggestion that I found interesting was the short questions. Meyer theorizes that more specific questions will come in the course of the conversation. And here is the key. Because, to quote Dan Meyer, “Math should drive the conversation. The conversation does not drive the math.”