Elevators and Number Sense

Number sense should develop early, and what simpler way to do it then to start with elevators?

Elevator, Vicenza, Italy

Why elevators you ask? Well, I just returned from 2 weeks in Italy. Partly for work: training elementary math teachers in Vicenza, Italy on College & Career Ready Standards for UT Dana Center International Fellows and Department of Defense Education Activities; and partly for leisure: touring Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, Tuscany and Rome with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law. The first thing I noticed was the elevators have negative numbers to indicate those floors below ground zero (i.e. what we usually call floor 1 or Lobby in the U.S.)   It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this – in England, in Paris, in Germany – all these other countries indicate on their elevators the ground floor to be 0, the floors above ground 0 are 1, 2, 3…. and the floors below ground zero are -1, -2, -3….

This way of numbering elevators makes sense. Much more sense than Floor 1, or Lobby and then Basement, Basement2 (or LL1, LL2) – which is our typical way of indicating the ground floor (1) and the floors below ground level (Basements/Lower Levels). If you were a young child living in these countries and taking the lifts (or elevators), you are regularly exposed to integer numbers – with a contextual connection that the ground floor of a building is ground 0, and the floors below the ground are negative numbers, and the floors above the ground are positive numbers. It may not even be explicitly explained to young children, though they would be using the terms ‘negative 1’ or ‘negative 2’ to go down below the ground floor. They will have this repeated exposure so when they are ‘officially’ taught about negative numbers in school, they have an immediate connection to prior knowledge about the numbers in an lift/elevator and can make a real-world connection. Negative numbers won’t be new or hard to understand because it’s just the numbers in the elevator. Or – the numbers of the temperature, because let’s not forget, these countries also use the Celsius temperature scale, where freezing is 0, and anything above 0 degrees is above freezing and getting warmer (positive) and anything below 0 degrees is getting colder (negative). The further from 0 in either direction, the warmer or colder you are – again, real-world connection and a contextual understanding of integers.

Number sense. Number lines. Integers. Real-world connections. Just from elevators and temperature scales.

This repeated exposure, informal as it may be, is developing an intuitive understanding of numbers and their real-world meaning. And when students are then exposed to number lines and positive and negative numbers more formally, in a school setting, they already get what that means because it is familiar to them. They can apply what they already know to ‘mathematics’. The formalization makes sense, and connections make sense, and understanding is that much deeper.  This is different in the U.S., where students often struggle with the idea of ‘negative’ numbers and number lines and the distance from zero because we are teaching them something new.  We don’t have a real-world exposure to negative numbers because we use LL or B1 to represent lower than 0, our ground floor is never called 0, it’s 1 or Lobby or G (ground). Our temperature doesn’t have 0 as the freezing mark – it has 32 degrees Farenheit. Think how much easier it would be to connect negative numbers (those numbers smaller than zero) to negative floors or negative temperatures. Freezing makes sense at 0. Negative temperatures are colder than freezing. Positive temperatures are warmer than freezing. 32 degrees – not quite the same one-to-one connection to a number line, is it?

Anyway – my point is that something as simple as changing the numbers on an elevator to integer representations would go a long way in helping young children develop number sense early on so that by the time they get to school, they already have a natural understanding of positive and negative numbers. Early on they would be exposed to the idea of 0 being the ground level, positive numbers mean higher floors or farther away from ground zero, and negative numbers mean lower floors, below the ground, and the further you go below ground, the more negative you get, the farther away from zero you are. Number lines would then be ‘recognizable’ because there’s a contextual connection. (If we could change our temperature scale to Celsius that would be great too, though that one is a lot harder to do).

Relabel elevator buttons to reflect numbers on a number line – a simple change that could go a long way in developing informal number sense in children.




Understanding Math – It’s All About Perspective

I love to explore TedTalks as there are so many interesting ones that expose you to new ideas. TedTalks are great to use with students as well, because they can spark conversations, provide some real-world applications, and engage students in learning. I am always looking for any math-related TedTalks, especially when I can connect them to concepts students might be about to explore or have already explored and I want to provide an interesting connection.

There was a newer talk posted by Roger Antonsen entitled Math Is the Hidden Secret to Understanding the World where he talks about how mathematics is all about patterns and the idea of finding patterns is how we use mathematics to understand the world. Asking the questions of how does this work, and why does this work.  Representing something with patterns and then changing the perspective of that pattern can lead to really interesting things.  One of my favorite lines of Antonsen’s is “If you change your perspective, and take another point of view, you learn something new about what you are watching, or looking at, or hearing”. He does a great example of looking at a very common equation: x + x = 2x and realizing that this ‘equation’ is actually two different perspectives – one additive, one multiplicative. He goes on to give several examples, and one the whole talk really brought out to me is this idea that if students are allowed to explore and describe and explain their own understanding of patterns in the ways that make sense to them, i.e. their representations, they might have a better understanding of the mathematics themselves. Representing numbers as patterns of pictures or sound – fascinating and engaging. When he looks at fractions from the perspective of music or sound, the ‘sound’ of 4/3 is really beautiful and makes sense. The different perspectives are what allow us to understand the mathematics.

Obviously, the Common Core comes to mind immediately – those Standards of Mathematical Practice that I love! If we look at just a couple things from these practices you can see Antonsen’s idea of changing perspective to understand and make sense of mathematics (and the world):

  • Students look at problems from multiple entry points (i.e perspectives)
  • Students reason abstractly – i.e. abstract what they know and apply it to make sense
  • Students model with mathematics – i.e. use different perspectives to represent something mathematically
  • Students look for and make sense of structure
  • Students look for and express regularity – (patterns)

Common Core practices really speak to Antonsen’s idea of understanding by finding patterns and using different perspectives to make sense of the world. He does a great job of both visually explaining, using mathematics as his example, of how changing perspective helps opens you up to understanding the world and becoming a more empathetic participant in it. It’s all about perspective.

Here is Antonsen’s TedTalk – worth a watch!

#CCSS Attending to Precision – Mathematical Practice #6

Precision in words and actions is an important skill.  It helps communicate ideas and understanding. Without precise language and processes, miscommunication, misunderstanding, confusion, and chaos rule. Obviously, in the bigger scheme of things, lack of precision can be dangerous. For example, if a civil engineer designing a bridge is not precise in their measures and calculations, bridge collapse and death are possible. One of the things educators need to do is foster this skill of precision in our instructional practice. Which is why helping students “attend to precision”, is one of the 8 Mathematical Practices in the Common Core State Standards. Teachers should be cultivating precision in their classroom.

What does this mean, to “attend to precision”, in the context of a math classroom?  Here is how the practice is defined in the Common Core:stock-photo-58636092-triangle

Math Practice #6: Attend to Precision

Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning. They state the meaning of the symbols they choose, including using the equal sign consistently and appropriately. They are careful about specifying units of measure, and labeling axes to clarify the correspondence with quantities in a problem. They calculate accurately and efficiently, express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context. In the elementary grades, students give carefully formulated explanations to each other. By the time they reach high school they have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions. 

If you look at some of the words/phrases I have highlighted above, you will note that precision focuses on communication, using definitions and symbols accurately and appropriately, labeling and identifying quantities carefully, giving explanations based on facts and definitions. In short – understanding the words and symbols being used in mathematics in order to communicate with others. Being precise has to do with helping others understand what you are doing and saying. It is not enough for the student to understand a mathematical concept, they have to be able to help others understand. Why is this so important? Because, the Common Core Standards are designed to help students become “college and career ready”, and in college and in careers, people must communicate with others to accomplish tasks and solve problems. They must be able to precisely explain what they mean, what they have developed, what they want others to do – which requires common language and clear explanations.  In other words, precision.

So, let’s go back to what this means in the context of the classroom. Teachers, no matter what grade – preK through college – should be using the correct language of mathematics and expecting their students to also use this language precisely and appropriately.  They should expect students to explain their thinking using that language, whether verbally or in writing, as students progress through the grades. I know students always groan when they hear “show your work”, but it is important.  And not just their work, but the why of their work. If students are working with measures, then their solutions and explanations should include units of measure. They should use vocabulary and definitions to explain their thinking. The more we have students talking and communicating with math, right from the beginning, the more confident and precise they will become. As teachers, we need to model this as well, by making an effort to use proper mathematical language and symbols, as appropriate for your students, and helping students do the same.

Below is a chart, based on work I did this summer with teachers exploring the Mathematical Practices, that gives some student outcomes aligned to teacher actions that may be helpful as you think about ways to help students “attend to precision” in your classroom.

Students should be able to…… Teachers support this by….
Use correct math vocabulary Teaching vocabulary, (with visuals, if appropriate), and using precise mathetical vocabulary consistently
Know and use definitions appropriately Teaching definitions and modeling using these consistently and intentionally
Communicate/explain their thinking using words and symbols, both written and verbally Encouraging classroom discourse; use think aloud strategies; establishing a culture of inquiry and communication
Record and label their work Providing exemplar for what precision looks like; setting expectations, modeling expectations and providing consistency
Choose and use appropriate mathematical symbols when solving problems or explaining Teaching appropriate symbols and their meanings and using/modeling these consistently