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Dealing With Our Children’s Math Issues

author: Royce Page
submitter: Valle Imperial Mathematics K-8 Local Systemic Change Project
description: Royce Page writes about the efforts of his LSC, the Valle Imperial Math Project, to enhance mathematics understanding for students in El Centro, CA.
published in: Imperial Valley Press
published: August 9, 2004
posted to site: 08/26/2004

MATH, the word that strikes fear into the hearts of millions. Why in informal polls is math the least liked subject in school? When adults ask Brad Fulton, a renowned state math educator, what he does for a living and he tells them he's a math teacher, they nearly all reply that hey, we were never really very good at math. Now, he tells them he's a sex ed. teacher.

Perhaps they got frustrated over not getting correct answers, or there were too many rules, or they couldn't memorize, or they couldn't figure out which procedure to use to solve those dreaded word problems. Maybe math just didn't seem to make sense. Young children develop a plethora of natural problem solving abilities. They can be incredibly creative in formulating their own approaches and procedures to solving problems. Then they start school. Teachers begin to teach that mathematics is governed by rules and facts, which have to be memorized in order to solve problems. There is insistence upon using only one right method, which quickly drives the creativity away and instead suggests that their sense making processes are invalid.

Constance Kamii, a math educator/researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests that most of our math troubles can be related to the standard subtraction algorithm that is traditionally taught in the second grade. Here's a common scenario: Kindergarten and First grade teachers labor long and hard teaching children to read from left to right. This makes sense since that is the way our written language is constructed. Then, teachers tell students to work math algorithms from right of left, starting from the ones place. And, in subtraction if the number on the bottom is higher than the number on top then you have to "borrow." With these contradictory new procedures, rules without explanation, and constant memorization, no wonder children are frequently left dazed in this cacophony of confusion.

So, is low math performance the teachers' fault? Most elementary teachers are hard working and dedicated to providing quality learning experiences for their students. However, they are also a product of our educational system that taught them to do math in only one way. Most of them could make some sense of the rules and procedures, although when asked many will say that they still don't understand why a rule was made or a procedure works. Further, these things did little to help them make sense of mathematics let alone engender any sort of curiosity and fondness toward problem solving. Many of us read for recreational pleasure, do you know any one who solves math problems for recreational pleasure?

To add yet another complicating layer to this enigmatic cake, the California Mathematics Framework standards for Eighth Graders are those of Algebra I. For all students to have access to Algebra is a noble goal, as well as a high school graduation requirement, but trying to make sense of the abstractions of Algebra is a formidable task at best. If students are going to have a fighting chance at making sense of Algebra in the 8th grade their preparation has to begin years earlier.

How would you answer this problem: 7 + 5 = _ + 8. What would you think would be the most common answer students from First to Eighth grade put into the box? If you put 4 into the box, you would be correct. If you said that the majority of 1-8th graders who answer the question put 12 into the box, you would also be correct. Where does the incorrect answer of 12 come from? Our observations indicate that students leaving kindergarten have a view of the equal sign as being only a signal for computing something, thus 12 goes into the box. Upper grade teachers are continually frustrated that students have difficulty learning to balance equations, all the while assuming that their students understand the equal sign.

Research shows that having an understanding of Algebra leads to having access to higher mathematics which is a foundational part of having access to the most of the top 100 paying jobs in the US today. We see math education and access to higher mathematics as being a primary power source for many of our students to be able to break the cycle of poverty that currently overshadows their futures. That is why we are passionate about trying to better enable Valley math teachers to make mathematics more accessible to their students.

What must be done? A good foundation for mathematics must be established in the Primary grades K-3. Research reveals that if children are allowed to solve problems by their own methods, they will be better equipped to make sense of mathematics. Many Valley teachers are taking advantage of staff development opportunities to learn about Cognitively Guided Instruction, a pedagogy predicated on the understanding that students can employ multiple strategies to solve problems and teachers should ask questions to get at and strengthen student understanding. With teachers getting the content and pedagogical staff development they need to make sense of mathematics for themselves, they will in turn begin to insure that their students have access to mathematical understanding. For, as expressed by Robert M. White, "The national spotlight is turning on mathematics as we appreciate its central role in the economic growth of this country... It must become a pump instead of a filter in the pipeline."

Royce Page is currently serving as the Coordinator for Valle Imperial Mathematics. (VIM) VIM is a Local Systemic Project funded by the National Science Foundation that does mathematics staff development for K-8 teachers throughout Imperial County. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation. Article printed in Imperial Valley Press, El Centro, CA Aug. 9, 2004 p. A4