“Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.” ~Dean Schlicter~
It’s common for people to refer to the changes schools are making to the methods we use for teaching math as “the new math’ as if there has been some recent, radical change to the discipline of mathematics. This is actually inaccurate as the ways that people have represented mathematical ideas (number symbols, drawings, models and charts) have not really changed much over the centuries. What has changed is our awareness of how mathematics can be taught and this is a function of both what we know about mathematics and how children learn.
It turns out that children learn best when they are engaged in tasks that are meaningful, authentic and provide just enough struggle to make it worth the effort. The short video from math teacher Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) gives some helpful examples of how real, everyday situations and contexts can be turned into meaningful math learning opportunities for students.
The example above differs from the traditional math instruction that is familiar to most of us and I have had many opportunities over the years to help guide conversations in this area. When working with parents and colleagues I find it’s helpful for them to know about my past experiences in the area of mathematics. Along with having taught math in almost every grade as a K-8 classroom teacher; I also had the opportunity, for several years, to work at the system level developing and leading mathematics professional development sessions for teachers from all over our district.
The ironic part about this, as my own parents would attest, is that my experiences as a math student in elementary and high school could only be described as abysmal. I struggled greatly in my attempts to learn math- the times tables, the procedures, formulae and rules were all too confusing for me to keep track of or apply with any confidence. Upon graduation I refused to even consider taking any math courses when I moved on the university.
So when, as a novice teacher, I found myself in the awkward position of spending my first year having to learn the mathematics curriculum I would be teaching my grade 7 class-I’m happy to report that my second experience learning grade 7 math was much more successful. During that year (and in the years since) I realized that learning math requires the understanding that math is best learned through experiences, communication and the solving of real problems and not just through the memorization of the rules and facts found in textbooks.
I didn’t really learn to appreciate and understand math during my time as a student in school. In fact, everything I have learned about math; both in my teaching and how I use math in my everyday life, I have learned since I began my teaching career- again in the real world.