Practical Math

As I may have mentioned, math can be a bit frustrating for me. I often think (and I’m sure every single math teacher alive would love to get paid $1 for each time they hear this), “What’s the point?”. Since beginning the elementary education program and putting myself in the shoes of a teacher, rather than a student, I’m beginning to see that there really is a point to everything we learn in school (including – sigh – math). The problem is that often the way we choose to teach math doesn’t lend itself to practical use later in life. Cue Dan Meyer.

Dan Meyer’s theory is that the way we currently teach mathematical reasoning is wrong. We often provide all the information to the students, lay out the steps, provide coordinates/labels/etc. and have them solve accordingly. In his TED Talk, Dan explains that we should instead provide students with the problem, and allow the students to determine the steps, label when necessary, and find their own way to the solution. When asked to solve in this way, students should be more engaged and will be able to clearly “see the point” of learning math in the first place.

In the weeks since I first saw Dan’s Ted Talk, I’ve been thinking about how to apply his technique in elementary classrooms, when very basic math skills are being taught. When I think back to my very first math lessons as an elementary student, I recall being told how to add, but not why it works. Rote memorization was a huge part of our classes. In reality, basic building blocks of math, like the addition and subtraction algorithms, should be taught in a hands-on setting. Manipulatives help students understand both how and why adding and subtracting works. Like Dan Meyer suggests, we can provide students the problem (“Mrs. Johnson had ten cookies, but then gave two of them away….”) and allow students to determine the steps with sticks, blocks, etc. I believe that if students are taught math in this way, they will be much more engaged, have better retention, and perhaps the math teachers of the world can finally stop hearing “What’s the point!?”.

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