Some teachers have found that the best strategy for encouraging students is to have parents learn new ways to solve math problems as well.
In Josh Yother’s classroom, students can spend more than 40 minutes on a single math problem.
Today’s topic is algebraic expressions, but students are never told outright how to solve the problem.
Yother tells his fourth-graders: Johnny feeds his dog for 15 minutes every day. He also walks his dog every day. How much time each day does he spend caring for his dog?
Students must write formulas with variables representing the unknowns: how much time Johnny spends walking his dog and how much time in all he spends caring for the dog each day. Some choose subtraction, others addition. One even chooses multiplication.
They get 60 seconds to think privately about the problem and start scratching formulas on their mini dry-erase boards. They’ll divide into pairs, discuss their methods and even hold a mock trial in front of the class to argue out which is the right way of arriving at the answer.
“We’ve got an interesting array of work here,” Yother said. “I look forward to some debate.”
The teacher doesn’t immediately tell them which is right (He’s looking for an algebraic expression like n + 15). Instead, he peppers the kids with questions, mainly: Why? They convince themselves that addition was the way to go. Yother confirms their conclusion.
This probably isn’t the way you learned math.
Approaches to Solving a Math Problem
Yother’s classroom is a look at how Common Core State Standards are changing not only what is taught in math classrooms, but how it’s taught. Officials here note that math has been slowly progressing for more than a decade, moving away from straight process and memorization (2+2=4) to a more conceptual understanding of why math works the way it does, using number lines and 10 blocks to help make the ideas concrete. Tennessee’s implementation of the Common Core standards is ushering in that transition more quickly.
But this kind of instruction is causing growing pains with teachers, politicians and parents.
Common Core has become a lightning rod political issue in Tennessee and across the country. Just this month, Tennessee state senators approved a bill to delay the state’s implementation of the standards. Other states have made similar moves.
Aside from the politics, many parents and grandparents complain that this way of learning math is confusing and too difficult for young children. Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman this month compared the approach to “trying to teach them to build a skyscraper before they show them how to dig a foundation.”
And she’s not alone. A local retired algebra teacher says he can’t believe the convoluted homework his fourth-grade granddaughter brings home.
School officials are well aware of the parental pushback. They say it will take some time for parents to acclimate to this type of instruction. It’s just not the way most of us are used to doing math.
“We learned the procedure. But we never really were taught why — why we do it that way,” said Ganns Principal Allyson DeYoung. “Now Common Core is teaching children the why behind the procedure. It’s giving them a deeper understanding.”
Some of Yoder’s students’ parents had the same initial reaction. He sent a letter home this fall explaining what was changing and sympathizing with parents’ confusion. Many have come around now, he said.
“I have parents who come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know who’s learning more, my daughter or me,'” he said. “It all depends on your attitude.”
In Yother’s class, students are encouraged to try problems multiple ways. They get to come up with their own ideas, write about them and defend them in front of the group. Not only are they understanding math on a deeper level, but Yother says when taught this way students develop communication and leadership skills.
“We’re still looking for an answer,” he said. “But at the end of the day, don’t you want your children to think?”
Read more about Common Core State Standards
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