Musings on Math

Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Head
Last night my son texted me and asked when I would be coming home. I responded letting him know an approximate time and asked him why he wanted to know. Usually, his answer is because he’s hungry, but last night, it was because he needed help with his math homework. Now it’s very possible that I may have stayed at work longer than I needed, and I also may have taken the long way home, but let’s just keep that to ourselves! 
You see, when my son seeks my help, I usually get excited because it almost always pertains to English, which is one of my favorite subjects and a strength. But math, especially now that he’s in eighth grade, well that’s a different story. But it wasn’t always that way. 

You know the famous quote by William Glasser, “We learn 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 70% of what we discuss, and 100% of what we teach others,” well after 12 years of teaching fourth grade math, I could beat any kid, hands down, at Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader? However, once my son rose beyond the fourth grade, my confidence started to drop, and I soon realized I didn’t have a chance at beating a kid at Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader 

For me, middle and high school math was tough, and I only took one college level math course in undergrad because it was required. I passed that class because of many hours in the math lab. Fast forward to my doctoral program, and while I earned an A in statistics, that wasn’t without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears! 

I know I’m not alone in these feelings about math. Many parents and teachers have come forward through the years to seek advice regarding math help/instruction. The elementary math our children are learning is very different than what we were taught at that age. Today there’s lattice multiplication, bar modeling, and partial sums. How many children learn these methods in school, go home to complete homework problems using these methods but forget the steps, and then when an adult helps the child points out, “That’s not how the teacher said to do it!”  

With the internet at our fingertips, it’s so much easier now to search “bar modeling” and watch a YouTube instructional video prior to helping a child. Thank you to all the teachers out there that post these videos. I also would like to personally thank Sal Khan for creating Kahn Academy as a resource for the world. Those tutorials have truly saved the day on several occasions in our home. 

While parents can get away with watching a two-minute YouTube video to help with math homework, Renbrook Lower School teachers need a lot more to call upon to support their students. This summer, our kindergarten through grade five teachers participated in a 3-day, in-person training on the Singapore Math teaching approach. Our trainer, Dr. Kevin Mahoney, was the first American to investigate Singapore's teaching methods at the doctoral level. He studied the effects of the Singaporean pedagogy on American elementary students and has become an advocate for the approach. The teachers were thrilled to have this intensive professional development opportunity and walked away inspired and excited to use many new teaching strategies with their students. I have kept in contact with Dr. Mahoney, and we will continue to use his services in the future for teacher coaching. 

Math in Focus: Singapore Math by Marshall Cavendish, the program we use here at Renbrook in grades one through five, is known best for its emphasis on bar modeling, and students are taught to use this approach beginning in grade two to solve problems. Bar modeling helps students visualize abstract math relationships through pictorial representations. Students use bar modeling to solve problems within four steps: understand the problemdevise a plancarry out the plan, and reflect on the solution 

The Singapore approach stands out from other programs because it teaches multiple heuristics (strategies) such as look for a patterndraw a picturesimplify the problem, and work backwards. While other programs teach similar strategies, they do so by type. Meaning, students are taught a strategy like look for a pattern and then they only practice problems that can be solved in that one way. In Math in Focus, students are instead encouraged to consider which strategy will work best for a particular problem. They are introduced to the heuristics and then given a variety of non-routine problems to solve. During the Professional Development training in June, our teachers were taught this, and they practiced countless non-routine problems using the heuristics. Lightbulbs went off left and right and the complexity of the Singapore approach melted away. I have no doubt that this teacher work will positively impact the students and their learning in many ways this year.  

Math is an incredibly important subject. It is something even a lay person uses multiple times a day throughout their entire life. It’s a subject many of our Renbrook graduates go on to study in college and use in their careers. As such, it is imperative we ensure they are building a strong foundation of concepts, skills, and thinking strategies. We also want to help our students understand that math can be applied across the curriculum into many different content areas. When teachers relate math to content students are learning in other classes, to their lives, and even to future jobs, math begins to make sense and become more exciting. 

While there is so much more to Math in Focus and the teaching of elementary mathematics in general, I think this is a great place to stop. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. That baton needs to be passed on to my Upper School colleagues who could beat a kid at Are You Smarter than a Sixth Grader?   
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