Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Getting to the Core of Our Math Problem

By Jacob Gutnicki


Growing up, most of us struggled with math at one time or another. Perhaps for you it was long division, fractions, finding the greatest common factor, using the formula for Pi, trigonometry, or a little fun with pre-calculus. Like many students, I occasionally wondered what was the point of learning decimals, algebraic equations, the metric system, and other ancient math formulas. Simply put, I did not anticipate anyone asking me to measure a scalene triangle, round a number to its nearest 100, or finding the lowest common denominator in a future job.

Several years later, my perspective would change as I learned that math helps us solve simple and complicated problems. Furthermore, formulas used in algebra are actually there to help us solve the problem with greater ease. In short, math helps us build trains, design houses, balance our budget, run a business, lose weight, and so on. However, this is not the way we are taught math. Instead, there is a heavy focus on mastering the algorithmic processes used in math. It is no wonder that many of us find math irrelevant and disconnected from real life problems.

Fortunately, many teaching programs show its in-service teachers how to teach math with a problem solving approach and tie the tasks to relevant real world problems. This has resulted in many teachers and by extension schools teaching math in an effective manner. However, there are still many teachers who strictly teach the algorithmic functions and ignore problem solving all together. This happens for the following reasons;

1. Teachers do not understand the math content. This is due to the fact that many Early Childhood and Grade 1-5 teaching programs place a heavy emphasis on Literacy and disregard Math. Additionally, many prospective teachers struggled with math as a child and are still struggling.

2. Teachers understand the math content as relates to functions and formulas but find problem solving very confusing.

3. Teachers often teach how they were taught as a child; thereby, teaching within their comfort zone.

Needless to say, this disconnect cannot continue. With this in mind, a greater effort must be made to retrain our teaching force in a non-punitive manner. This training should include a focused training in math content, pedagogical strategies, and how the different functional math areas relate to solving problems in the real world. For example, how will learning ratios and geometry help me on a daily basis? Perhaps the creation of the Common Core Standards will offer a window of opportunity to correct this. A quick perusal of the draft version of the document reveals that the following mathematical priorities are included;

1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively

3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others

4. Model with mathematics

5. Use appropriate tools strategically

6. Attend to precision

7. Look for and make use of structure

8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

However, it is too early to predict how the Common Core Standards will impact education. Additionally, many earlier attempts have clearly fallen on deaf ears for one reason or another. However, one can hope that this serves as a turning point that changes how we teach math.

 
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