Teach math’s power and purpose, all in just one day

By Susan Kovalik, Think About It

  • Monday, April 7, 2008 1:02pm
  • Opinion

By Susan Kovalik, Think About It

Do you ever save articles from the newspaper or periodicals, cutting them out carefully and then wondering where to store them and for what purpose?

I am sure this habit began for me way before the computer, as I believed I could use the information in my classroom at a later time. Well, this week an article appeared from my distant past as I was going through a box of old books. It was a Time magazine article dated Jan. 26, 1987, titled “Bad News About Math.”

Finding this seemed timely as the cartoon in The Mirror on March 22 was a reminder of the challenges math has posed to the creators of the WASL and to the students and teachers in this state.

Math has been a learning dilemma for years. Every four to seven years, publishers come out with new math textbooks and convince educators that this product will produce what is needed, and it becomes the next “adoption.” Given our current situation in Washington state and throughout the United States, as many of those goals were not achieved for students, I wonder if we could ask for our money back?

I believe, given what we know today about how the brain learns, that the basic skills in mathematics should be taught in a consolidated, intense and purposeful manner, some taking one day and some a week. Once the skill is taught in a brain compatible manner, the extension into the larger vision of math will have a solid foundation.

In the 1987 Time article, the author stated that the math problem was connected to the way it was taught: “Curriculum, which spirals students through subjects, with a light introduction in the early years and subsequent returns to concepts at increasingly sophisticated levels fails miserably as we keep on retreading and revisiting the same ideas.”

Those who understand it become bored because they know it, and for those who don’t, they think that it must be too hard. As the years go on, we often assign students into specific math “groups” where, for the most part, we forever hold the view of ourselves as good, average or poor at math.

What if we approach math as the skill that it is and realize the necessity of intensifying the instruction of the skill through a solid block of time, expecting that the mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, algebra, geometry and calculus could be accomplished. Approaching the teaching of math as a tool to explain everything else that we are learning would provide real world application and connections that are valuable in everything that we do.

What if we took a group of 50 heterogeneous fourth-graders and determined they could learn the process of division (long, short, whole number remainders, fractional remainders and how to write a story problem) in seven hours.

Imagine 20 different centers with real world problems from their environment, where they could develop practical understanding and build a “mental program” for the processes necessary to be successful.

Each student would be at a table group of five students to one adult, who would provide immediate feedback as they build understanding — as it is much more difficult to unlearn something than learn it effectively the first time. Additionally, there would be physical education games that demonstrated division, art, music and literature activities that would reinforce the goals of the day. From the standpoint of how the brain learns, this method has power and purpose — and is meaningful and exciting. And the adults in the classroom are only there for a day.

After this day, students could create their own division problems from their science, social studies or reading because they are confident in how the skill is used. This expands their mathematical thinking because there is context.

This is considerably different from having math 30 to 40 minutes a day surrounded by all the other subjects for which the teachers are responsible, in a spiraled curriculum that has sixth- and seventh-graders unclear on how to do division.

I would like to offer a metaphor between learning math and going fishing.

Imagine learning how to fish in a spiraled manner. Weeks and months learning the rod, then the reel, and then months later the line and the hook, and next year the baiting and the casting — and we have not even gone to the water yet. Eventually, we would go to the water and see if we could remember all the steps so that we could catch, clean and cook the fish.

Understanding basic math has huge implications as is evident in what is happening in our economy today. Do we really understand percentage points, minimum payment and other math concepts that we each use in our daily lives? And what about the stock market and how it controls so much of what we do?

If we continue to teach math the way we have, at least since the 1980s, we will continue to have the same results. Students do not have the solid skill base to apply their understanding to everyday life, much less the test.

I know it is possible to do it differently because I have seen it done. When skills are done well, the impact in understanding for students is solid and eventually impacts our lives and our economy.

Think about it.

Susan J. Kovalik is an educator, international consultant and author in Federal Way. She is founder of The Center for Effective Learning in Federal Way who can be reached at skovalik@kovalik.com.

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