Could math class do with more talking?

The education blog MindShift this week looked at a Teaching Channel video on how even very young children can benefit from learning to explain their thinking when considering math problems.

In the video, first graders play a game of “Which one doesn’t belong?” One class is asked to consider four different shapes and to think about and explain the similarities and differences between the shapes to their peers. The kids come up with a range of possible solutions – one shape is a heart and the other is a heart with points instead of curves at the top; three of the shapes have curves and one doesn’t.

Another class looks at four types of food and tries to figure out how best to group them. One kid thinks the lettuce and the apple should go together because they’re both green, another thinks the apple doesn’t belong because the other three items are vegetables and it is the only fruit.

The interesting part is the explanation given by the students and the way their classmates listen to and weigh their arguments.

“Trying to make sense of things, articulating our thinking, backing up our claims, engaging in other people’s ideas, those are how other people use math in the real world and so we need to support young learners to engage with mathematics in that way from the very beginning and five- and six-year-olds are absolutely capable of doing so with the right activity structures and the right supports,” says Alison Fox, a teacher educator from the University of Washington.

Journalist Katrina Schwarts, who blogs at MindShift, says “It’s hard to get kids in the habit of talking about how they are thinking about a problem when they’ve had many years of instruction that focused on getting the ‘right answer’. That’s why educators are now trying to get students in the habit of explaining their thinking at a young age.”

This idea resonated with me. As a child, my math education was solely based on getting the right answer, and that was usually a silent, internal process. Any explanation that needed to be done to show the teacher how I got to these answers, was done on paper, in writing. Talking through a problem was never really part of the process, and perhaps this is part of why I always saw maths as a very alienating subject.

I have to say, the idea of using concepts that aren’t necessarily tied directly to maths – like similarities or differences – to encourage mathematical thinking appeals to me. As a mathematically-challenged parent, I struggle with the question of how best to encourage an interest in and appreciation for math. These kinds of discussions, woven into everyday life, could be a way to circumvent that.

Check out the video below:

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