Beside my status as a certified oldster, there are many things that parents bring to me or talk about that make me feel increasingly cranky.
One that gets me regularly irritable is the current state of affairs relative to the teaching of mathematics, in particular in relation to struggling elementary school children.
I don’t know when it occurred or what was behind it (I have my suspicions which I will leave out of this), but from what I can tell the teaching of math has changed over the years, based on two things that I frequently see.
The first is what I will call the Sacredness of the Mathematic Word Problem.
As recently told to me by a mom regarding her 7 year old, second grade child, Sydney, who doesn’t read very well, she noted that the Sydney’s class receives virtually no traditional mathematic problems presented in purely number form (i.e., not word problems).
While Sydney has shown good mathematic instincts outside of school, she is already feeling insecure and shut-down with the daily bombardment of word problems, along with her struggles with reading, spelling and writing.
Sydney’s parents were hoping that she could at least shine in math, but sadly this was not the case.
As the mom said, “I don’t get it. I’m not exaggerating. It’s January and maybe one time so far this year Sydney was given traditional math problems on the page with just numbers. Whether it’s classwork or homework it’s always the same, word problem after word problem. Along with the fact the fact that she can’t decode well, she has comprehension issues, so what do they expect her to do? She’s freaking out because she can’t read the word problems.”
It’s not that I don’t understand the value of mathematic word problems, especially for children in the upper grades, but for the Sydneys of the word, the word problems are just one more reminder of their weaknesses.
The fact of the matter is that many of the children who are struggling with reading, spelling and writing often have solid mathematic instincts.
It’s a shame that they just can’t show them.
The second phenomena on the surface may seem trivial, but I do think for the children of concern the issue represents a challenge.
This phenomena is the insistence that at those rare times the children are given more traditional mathematic problems, the problems are rarely presented in a vertical format, but are largely presented horizontally.
For example, instead of:
The problems are given horizontally, as in 12 x 3 = ? and 57 + 32 = ?
It’s probably my own mathematic limitations, but I of consistently find the horizontal presentation of mathematic problems to be more challenging than when they are presented vertically.
Of course, educators may respond that it is good for children to be thinking flexibly and I support this notion, but again, for the children of concern, the whole show is hard enough for them to manage without adding one more compounding variable.
If you see your child struggling because of word problem confusion or difficulty navigating horizontal math problems, talk to the teacher. Maybe sensitizing her to the issues can help.
With your child, help them to sort it all out. That is, without doing the problems for your child, help setting up the problems so it is more understandable.
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