Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Why Computation Needs to Be an Essential Part of Elementary Math Class

 Every once in a great while, I like to watch a late night police drama. As a teacher, this doesn't happen very often because I usually fall asleep in my chair by 9:00 p.m. and I generally have other things to do. But when I do make the occasional effort, I love solving a good mystery before the so-called experts weigh in on things at the end of the episode.

Probably my favorite line from any of these shows goes something like this: "Please just stick to the facts, ma'am (or sir)." This is usually uttered by some grizzled old detective who has learned the hard way over the years that the facts, coupled with a little bit of theorizing on his/her part, are what it's going to take to solve the crime.

This is exactly how I feel about math instruction. I know, I know, it's not a popular stance in current trends, but please just hear me out.

If you read my last post, I described how I found myself teaching fourth grade math after years of teaching middle school ELA. What an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Imagine my surprise that as a college-educated woman with 20 years of teaching experience, I basically knew very little about fourth grade math. (Please note the heavy sarcasm.)

Oh, I knew how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide just fine. And as the the mother of two, I can divide any after school snack into equal fractions when given a semi-sharp cutting tool. You know, the things that help you lead a somewhat productive adult life for the past few decades.

HOWEVER, I soon learned I wasn't quite as equipped to show what I know on the theory side of things. I'll admit, I learned a lot, and I imagine this is how many parents feel when their kids bring home math homework. 

BUT--and this is a big but--do we emphasize the WHY and the HOW over the actual practice of DOING?

Before I ruffle too many feathers, I do realize it is extremely important for students to learn the why's and how's of mathematical skills and concepts. I also believe it is important for them to have equal, if not more, time to put those skills to practice. And I also believe those two beliefs can coexist peacefully in a math curriculum.

For example, if coaches spent most of their time teaching their players different plays and very little time practicing skills, how successful would that team be? You need to have some standard skills down in order to effectively execute those game-winning plays.

For yet another example, every one of my 9 and 10-year-old students could tell you why and how to drive a car in modern society. Most could tell you the basics of how to start the car, put it in gear, steer, and stop. BUT if given the opportunity to actually drive themselves (and boy, would they love that!), most could not successfully do it because they do not possess the necessary skills...and driver's license.

And that, my friends, is where most of the kiddos in my particular area are at when it comes to math. They can explain how to solve almost any kind of mathematical problem, but when the rubber hits the road, they don't have the basic skills to correctly complete the problem themselves.

I think we've all experienced as educators, and possibly as mathematicians ourselves, times when our students knew exactly what to do but didn't arrive at the correct answer. Why? Because they made a silly error with addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. 

What's the solution to this problem? In my opinion: practice, practice, practice.

And here's where my math coach and administrators would faint. 

As a middle school teacher, I had the privilege of being on a team with one of the best math teachers I have ever met. We had a waiting list for parents wanting their kids on our team because of her. (I like to think the rest of us made our contributions too, but we all recognized she was pretty phenomenal at what she did.)😊

It didn't matter where our kiddos were in math at the beginning of the year, by the end of May, they were math rock stars. In fact, many of the kids finished their year with high school level test scores. Wow!

I once asked her what her secret was and she simply replied, "Weekly computation practice. It doesn't do any good for them to learn advanced mathematical concepts if they don't have a firm foundation to build on."

Why are the really effective things in life so simple? While this may not have been an earth- shattering revelation, it certainly has turned things around for many math students, my own kiddos included.

If you're convinced that computation practice needs to play a bigger role in your classroom, why not start today?! During our math intervention time, we have played games, worked on flashcards, taken timed tests, worked problems on dry-erase boards, and the list goes on and on. My students' favorite way of practicing math facts has to be BOOM Cards™. I have slowly been adding different computation practice decks to my Teachers Pay Teachers store and my BOOM store if you'd like to check those out.

Thank you, friends, for hearing me out on this not always popular opinion. I will hop off my soap box now, but I'd like to leave you with one final thought. I mentioned at the beginning of this rather lengthy dissertation (sorry, not sorry) that I lived most of my adult life somewhat successfully knowing basic math skills and a little bit of theory.

My question for you is: Would the reverse have been equally true? Would I have been able to lead a semi-successful life knowing mostly mathematical theory and not mastering basic skills?  (Okay, that's TWO questions, but I think they're good ones to ponder.)

I hope you'll agree that our students deserve a balanced approach.

Until next time...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for stopping by! Have a wonderful day!