Slow at Math ≠ Bad at Math

*Note: This is a recycled post from my personal blog.

“Speed ISN’T important in math. What is important is to deeply understand mathematical ideas and connections. Whether you are fast or slow isn’t really relevant.” – Laurent Schwartz, mathematician

If you haven’t seen the video by Jo Boaler and some of her Stanford students entitled “How to Learn Math: Four Key Messages”, you definitely need to. Besides the four powerful messages (which I will list below), it has some great stories and quotes, one of which is the one I have above.  Jo Boaler has done powerful research and written some terrific books on mathematics and learning math (one of my favorites being “What’s Math Got to Do with It?” and the video about these four key messages in math is so interesting.

Here are the four key messages about learning math (I highly recommend you watch the video to clarify and define each message a bit more):

1. Everyone can learn math at high levels
3. Struggle and mistakes are really important in learning math
4. Speed is NOT important
All of these speak directly to the way we still, sadly, often teach and learn mathematics. One that really struck out for me was #4, speed is not important. I remember my own daughters struggling with the timed math tests – i.e. you have a minute to try and solve 100 times tables, or complete as many addition problems as possible. Very stressful, very ridiculous, and to top it off, they were penalized with poor grades if they couldn’t reach the arbitrary goal of “x amount of problems in 1 minute”. It still goes on and students memorize and stress over these timed math drills. Why? It’s ridiculous. If we continue to do this to students, then they begin to believe they are bad at math (see #2 above), which leads to them thinking they can’t learn math (see #1), and therefore leads to them giving up when problems get tough (see #3). A self-fulfilling prophecy.
So – I ask those math teachers out there who continue to put pressure on students to perform mathematical skills in a timed matter, where speed is important – stop. Just stop. Focus on what mathematics should be – understanding why those calculations matter, what they are related to, how they help us solve real-world problems. Help students make connections.
I know I keep coming back to it – but the Common Core Mathematical Practices seem to embody these four key messages. No where in there does it say students have to be able to do ___calculations in _____ minutes. Math is NOT about speed – it’s about the struggle, perseverance, conjectures, connections, and applications that help students solve relevant, real-world problems and see the beauty and need for mathematics.
Check out the video here

Pee In the Pool and Other Summer Problems – Problem Solving Resources

As part of my daily brush-up-on education news, I read over my Twitter feed to see what interesting articles or problems the many great educators and educational resource companies I follow might have shared. I laughed so hard when I saw the Tweet from @YummyMath asking how much pee was in the water, with a picture of a large pool and many people in it. Come on – let’s admit it, we have all asked that question at one time or another (especially if you are a parent!!)  It’s a great question. And now I am curious. Where to start? My thoughts are I’d probably need to do some research on the average amount of pee found in a pool and then go from there. The great thing here – Brian Marks from @YummyMath has done that work for me, and even has an engaging ‘lesson starter’ video to go along with the lesson (link to the lesson). So – this would be a really fun problem to start out with that first day of school – funny, lots to notice and wonder about, getting ideas from students on where to begin, what information they might need, etc.

In an early post this summer, Summer Vacation – Use Your Experiences to Create Engaging Lesson Ideas, I talked about how your own summer experiences could raise questions and interesting problem-solving experiences to bring back to the classroom. But – as the tweet from Brian Marks @yummyMath reminded me, there are other amazing educators and resources out there who are already thinking of these questions and even creating the lessons for you. No need to reinvent the wheel, as they say – if there are some interesting questions and resources already being posed and shared, then use them. Saves time, maybe provides some ideas you hadn’t thought of before, or maybe it takes something you did think of and provides some questions or links that you hadn’t found yourself. As educators, we need to really learn to collaborate and share our expertise so that we are not individuals trying to support just our students, but we are educators trying to work together to improve instructional practices and student achievement. Isn’t that what we try to stress within our own classrooms – i.e. working together, communicating, and sharing ideas because this leads to better understandings and new approaches? Same goes for our teaching practices and strategies.

Here are some fun problem-solving resources, with lots of different types of problems, but definitely some ‘summer-related’ things already started for you!

1. YummyMath – (check out the ‘costco-size’ beach towel activity….that’s funny!)
2. Mathalicious – (Check out the ‘License to Ill’ lesson – relevant to todays’ debate on Health Care & Insurance)
3. Tuva|Data Literacy (Check out their lessons and their technology for graphing and analyzing data, and their data sets – so much here!)
4. RealWorldMath
5. TheMathForum
6. Illuminations
7. Center of Math
8. MakeMathMore.com
9. MashUpMath

The Language of Math – Consistency to Support Students

I’ve been teaching some courses at Drexel University, and in those course we really focus on the language of mathematics and using students prior knowledge to help them make connections and build on their mathematical understanding.

In a current course, we are exploring integer addition and using manipulative’s to provide both a visual and concrete connection to the idea of creating zero pairs, and then progressing to the more abstract addition of integers without manipulatives and how do you support students understanding and language. What has come up frequently is the terms ‘cancelling out’ and ‘disappearing’ and ‘opposites’ to explain or help students understand that creating zero pairs allows you to use the additive identity property.  But – what’s really happening, mathematically, is that we are using additive inverse (opposites) to create these zero pairs, which are NOT cancelling out or disappearing, but instead, are creating the quantity zero. And, once we have created this quantity zero, the remaining value can be added to those zeros using the additive identity property. Cancelling out or disappearing implies they don’t exist, which, when we expand the idea identity into multiplication where we use the multiplicative inverse to create a 1 (not a zero), cancelling out really seems confusing.

Seems like it shouldn’t make a difference, but think about it – if we use terms like opposites, cancel out, or disappear in one grade, and then the next grade or future courses, the same ideas are referred to as additive inverse, zero pairs, additive identity property, students will be confused and think they have never seen these concepts before. While it is very important to use language students understand to start the process, I think as mathematics teachers, no matter what grade level, we need to model proper mathematical language in conjunction with the ‘student-friendly’ terms we tend to rely on or fall back on. This way, students can relate, but then learn, build on, connect & utilize mathematical language so that we are all communicating on an equal playing field.

Something as simple as -3 being referred to as negative 3, minus 3, or even 3 negatives. That’s confusing. Let’s learn to be consistent with our mathematical language and use the correct vocabulary – both in our own teaching, but also in what we expect to hear from our students. So if a student says that the opposite of 3 is -3 (positive 3 and negative 3), let’s acknowledge that they are thinking correctly, and in mathematics we refer to that as an inverse. This will then help them make that connection when we talk about inverse operations.  Consistent mathematical language supports students understanding as they progress into more abstract mathematics.

We want our students to communicate mathematically with the language of mathematics and become proficient mathematicians. Let’s then make a conscientious effort to use and model correct mathematical language instead of the ‘short-cuts’ or ‘simplified language’ we tend to use.  Again – important to start out with this type of language to help students connect prior knowledge, but then more important to model using and support students use of, correct mathematical language. I think it would go a long way in preventing some confusion students experience as they move from grade to grade or course to course.