Posted by: jwhiff | July 3, 2018

What Students Bring

I’ve been giving some thought to math practice over the last…well…decade or two.

I’m not one who relishes spending math class completing worksheet after worksheet of adding or dividing or whatever.  I feel terrible giving kids practice when they already know how to do it and find it too easy.  I feel awful giving practice to kids when they struggle and can’t get through it because they need you to sit with them through every tough spot.  I can’t stand it when I don’t give enough of the right practice when kids need it.  I have developed some pretty interesting routines to try to address this problem and to give us time as a class to explore some more meaningful math activities.

However, when kids, parents or next year’s teacher let me know that they were assessed on some pretty tough basics right off the bat, I feel demoralized and worried.  Was my attempt to make math meaningful during their time with me wasted time?  Should I have stuck to drilling the basics since that was what they were judged on right away?  Did I give them enough practice?

To simplify this confessional, let’s just say that I find this bit of teaching math tough.

To top it all off, I know with 100% certainty that if you want to do well at anything, it takes time and practice.  So what to do?

Well, I feel like I need to honour the need to practice and practice well.  Plus, I don’t want to give up my meaningful activities.  Plus, I want to get better at both.  And, oh ya…I still have to teach language arts and science and social studies  and gym and art and, and, and….!

All of these things take time and practice!!!  We need to prioritize, of course.  When parents bemoan the fact that their kids aren’t good at cursive writing, I am not afraid to tell them what I know…that to get good at anything, you need lots of practice time.  And then to ask them, “How much time in the day do you actually want me to dedicate to cursive writing so that the kids these days know how to do it well…and at the expense of what?”   When I put it that way, they reasonably conclude not much.  When they come to me asking about math practice, I feel less sure of what to say.

I know it takes time. They know it, too.  But math reality is more complicated than cursive writing reality.  There is a lot we are supposed to do in math, and to do any of these things, they all need time and practice to do them well.  If we try to spend a little time on everything, kids aren’t getting enough time to do any of those things well.  So what do we focus on?

I recently spoke to a student completing her PhD in math education and she argued that we shouldn’t bother practicing basic algorithms at all.  Her opinion was that students should be engaged in authentic problem solving, period.  At the risk of sounding like a luddite, I have to confess that I was uncomfortable with her statement.  It is true that students would become better intuitive problem solvers if all math time was dedicated to this practice and I love thinking about this possibility on a strictly philosophical level.  However, I could never do it in isolation.  I’d have to have pretty darn strong convictions to throw it down and go this way knowing the judgement and uncertainty my students would face the following year.  Private tutors would get a lot of work, that’s for certain.  If parents can afford them (which brings up another issue: two-tiered math education! Good topic for a future post.)

And that’s the thing!  No matter what I choose to do, people everywhere have very strong, often divergent opinions about math. And when people disagree, kids are caught in the middle.  The middle of a battle ground is a very uncomfortable place for anyone to be, let alone a child!  I won’t choose a strong, controversial position and engage in a philosophical battle with parents or with other teachers.  I can’t just say they are ignorant or wrong.  Especially when I know these people to be mostly reasonable, intelligent and concerned for kids.

So!  This is what I have done:

I have developed a practice that attempts to honour and accommodate what students bring with them to my class.  My early assessments are very gentle. I want them to teach me what they know about numbers and how they interact.  And if they can’t remember, I want to have a few possibilities ready for them to see if any look familiar so that I might help refresh memories and ease anxiety.  I then use my knowledge of what they bring with them to build the right kind of practice that helps them move forward on the foundations they have.  No deleting.  No huffing and puffing about last year’s methods or about what they did or did not learn.  I’m not worried about that.  I am worried about the child in front of me.  Kids feel so good when they know that the precious things they have are valued and will not be discarded by me.

I’ll go into detail about how I managed this next post.  This was a bit of a long essay, but I needed to write it.



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