Math education: could we all be part of the solution?

I thought I should dedicate a whole post on a book I am reading, “Teach like your hair’s on fire” by Rafe Esquith. Although it was suggested to me as a student pursuing a Master in Math Elementary Education, I find it quite inspiring as a parent as well. I highly recommend it.Teach like your hair's on fire

The author, a 5th grade teacher, provides his vision, rather straightforward, of the US education system, what has changed in the past 20 years, the pressure teachers may have from testing, how they struggle with finding the time to just teach. But for every problem he mentioned, he provides tips, techniques to solve it, as a teacher, as a parent.

His statement on teaching Math is quite heartbreaking, though.

“Kids are taught ‘tricks” to help them compute. They have no idea what they are doing but can get the right answer. Their scores are decent and everyone is happy. But this should not be our ultimate goal in teaching numbers. We want our children to understand the power of numbers, to appreciate that mathematics is both relevant to their life and fun.”

Indeed, even with Rosie attending a quite nurturing school environment, away from tricks, away from EOGs, I can see that, sometimes, she does things without fully understand why. Quick example.

  • Before Rosie started Kindergarten, we did some word problems such as “There are 4 ducks on a pond. 3 more ducks come. How many ducks are on the pond?” And intuitively, she would draw the ducks, talk, raise questions. Yes, they can be “rainbow ducks”. Sure, you can add some flowers around the pond if you want to. And Rosie would come up, naturally, with an answer of 7.
  • During her Spring break, I asked her a similar problem. Just to see where she was. She read the problem, wrote some dots, an equation, and came up with an answer. A right answer. Intrigued by her dots, I asked her why she solved the problem using them. “Well, it helps me count”. Yes, but how does it help you? She couldn’t say. She could not say that, instead of drawing ducks, she wrote dots. That it was faster to write dots than drawing ducks. And I have no doubt she was told at School why she could use a dot. But at one point, somehow, she lost the connection. So we went back an inch. We drew some ducks. Colorful ducks. Silly ducks. We represented them with dots, squares, hearts, tally bars, anything that would come up into Rosie’s mind. We added numerals, we wrote an equation. Until she fully saw, again, the connection between the number of ducks, the numerals, the symbols.

I am just starting this blog, not certain where it is going to take me, but if there is a problem with math education in the US, I am ready to contribute to the solution. With Rosie. With you. Even if it is just a drop in the ocean, I am willing to try. Like my hair’s on fire.

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