A New Way to Think About Math

When I was in the classroom, I can’t even tell you how many times I heard people say “I am so bad at math”.  Some students were convinced that it was genetic and being bad at math ran in their families.  In truth, I have never seen a student who did not improve their problem solving skills with time and effort.  So how do we debunk this myth that is so ingrained in our society?

Somewhere between early elementary and high school, many students lose their curiosity and creativity in math problem-solving, in favor of rote memorization, algorithms and formulas.  Junaid Mubeen beautifully demonstrates this idea in this Ted Talk about the real issue behind this “bad at math” phenomenon.  He gives the example of the problem
1+2+3+4+5…+99+100 that could be an extraordinarily difficult problem for many people to grapple with without the formula.  Math legend has it that an eight-year-old Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss discovered the idea of summation with a simple, creative idea.  Math is really a study of patterns, and Gauss discovered that he really had 50 sets of 101, as seen below.  When we are introduced to Gaussian Summation, the focus ends up being on the formula  instead of the pattern that inspired the formula.

You may be thinking, why does this matter and what can I do?  So many things can help students to build their understanding of patterns and problem-solving. The change in mathematical pedagogy has been shifting since 2012 with the adoption of updated standards.  The Math Practice Standards give us a framework that can help us as teachers to guide students into thinking differently.  Here are the Math Practice Standards in kid-friendly language.

  • I never give up on a problem and I do my best to get it right
  • I can solve problems in more than one way
  • I can explain my math thinking and talk about it with others
  • I see the math in everyday life and I can use math to solve everyday problems
  • I know how to choose and use the right tools to solve a math problem
  • I can work carefully and check my work
  • I can use what I know to solve new problems
  • I can solve problems by looking for rules and patterns

Believe it or not, many of those are building good habits in all subject areas and can be seen running concurrently in other standard sets.  A great way to demonstrate these standards to students is to incorporate number talks into your daily routines.  Number talks are great for all age groups and can easily be tailored to fit the needs of the teachers and students.  In the blog post “5 Reasons that Number Talks Should Be a Regular Part of Your Math Routine” by Bethany at mathgeekmama.com, here are some benefits.

  • Number talks teach kids to think like a mathematician
  • Number talks help student to develop conceptual understanding
  • Number talks give kids the opportunity to make connections & come up with their own strategies.
  • Algorithms and formulas apart from understanding leads to nonsensical reasoning and solutions.
  • Number talks strengthen mental math skills.

To learn more about Number Talk Routines, check out this episode of Branching Out.

Ultimately, looking at math differently is a great opportunity to embed lifelong learning strategies for all students.  Embracing some new routines in the classroom can help to take “I am just bad at math” to a more successful mindset.  You may even get “I LOVE Math!” Have you ever tried a number talk routine?  What was your experience like?  Please join in the conversation by tagging us @KaneCountyROE.

Raven Szalkowski – Professional Learning Coordinator

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