Did you ever eavesdrop at your parents’ dinner parties? Someone would mention high school or middle school math, and a group groan would arise. For generations, it was socially acceptable to admit to being “bad at math.”
Hopefully, those days are behind us. Imagine a dinner party in the not-so-distant future. Your now-grown children are engaged in a positive reminiscence about their math class memories. And, it’s not a mere intellectual exercise. These adults grew up understanding that math is expressive, creative, enjoyable – and essential to nearly every aspect of everyday life.
The great news is that the basic aptitudes needed to become at least comfortable with math are skills most of us can – and do – acquire with relative ease. “Most of math depends on natural abilities, such as recognizing patterns,” points out Jessica Tomback, Lowell’s Primary School math resource teacher. “Humans are very good at recognizing patterns; we rely on that skill every day to make sense of ordinary things.” Whether designing a family budget or working collaboratively on corporate challenges, we regularly tap into our “math minds,” which are simultaneously creative and analytical.
“Most people confuse arithmetic with math,” explains Middle School Math Teacher Lee Bissett, “but it’s so much more than times tables and fractions. Educators now recognize the holistic nature of math and work it into the curriculum in ways that engage children on a deeper level.” With technology performing most of the number crunching that has defined math for past generations of students, teachers are now freer to focus their students’ attention on more rewarding 21st-century math skills like pattern identification, flexible thinking, and collaborative problem solving. “One of my primary goals,” explains Jessica, “is to have the student think, ‘ooh, this is going to be an interesting problem to solve!’”
At Lowell School, students learn that flexibility of thought is just as important as calculations. Real world problems are presented, and students work individually or in groups to approach these problems strategically, looking for reasonable, agreeable solutions…not simply the answer that “adds up.” As their minds develop, classroom problems become more abstract. Strategic use of calculators can make computation faster, freeing young minds to ponder, “How many different approaches can I take to arrive at the right answer?” Yes, memorization still has its place, but strategy and creativity have new importance in today’s classrooms.
Lee stresses that communication has become an important math skill. When grading work, teachers are apt to consider whether or not the student made an effective argument, clearly presented key ideas, successfully defended the problem-solving strategy…and, yes, arrived at the right answer, too. In one interesting example, students determined where to go on a field trip. They examined the data (preferences of their classmates), but needed to balance that information against the cost of the various trip options. “Math has become more of a dialogue than a monologue,” observes Jessica. Another class was asked to design their own bedrooms, taking into consideration location, pricing, and dimension variables. “These imaginative projects make the mathematical planning process much more fun,” adds Lee.
It doesn’t hurt that the professional world is turning out a greater number of math celebrities, people whom students recognize and admire. “Look at ESPN’s Nate Silver,” says Lee. “He’s a statistician by training, but he’s used his skills in ways that have made him a math rock star. His blog has an enormous following!” Our goal is to give our students the foundation to use math strategies when tackling challenges in all aspects of their lives…and, perhaps, the inspiration to consider mathematics one of their many career options.
Next week, we’ll talk about strategies to help prepare your child for a lifetime of math enthusiasm and confidence. You and your child can enjoy these techniques at home, further reinforcing mathematical pleasure and proficiency.