Being math-minded is not what you think

I have a secret.  But sharing this secret means that I have to admit that I’ve been wrong.  It’s really hard to admit when one is wrong, but I know change can’t and won’t come until I share my secret.  So here it is:  being good at math doesn’t mean quick calculations and correct answers.  Being good at math means persevering through the process.  Being good at math means trying, and trying, and trying again.

I’ve always believed that being good at math meant being fast and getting correct answers.   I considered myself to be a “math person” because I could do those things.  I did the “math tricks” I was taught and never questioned them.  I never even wondered why I was doing them, but I made good grades and that’s all that mattered, right?  Recently, my eyes have been opened to what math-minded really looks like, and I will never be the same.    

The Common Core State Standards came about at the beginning of my teaching career, and just like everyone else, I fought even learning what they were all about.  All I knew was that it was totally different from how I was taught.  I kept telling myself that I learned math just fine without knowing the “why” behind any of it.  I did what the teacher told me, and the kids today just needed to do the same, so I fought it.  I reverted back to what I knew and taught my students the way I was taught.  So I taught my students the fluency and the “tricks,” thinking all along that the conceptual knowledge and the ability to apply their knowledge would come in time, even though I did not intentionally teach it.  What I didn’t realize until a few years later was that we have created a generation of kids who can’t problem solve their way out of a paper bag.  I had students who could finish a fluency worksheet in minutes but when things got hard and they had to apply what they knew, they gave up.  Or in my case, because I am the teacher, they raised their hand, and I spoon-fed it to them.  I have been doing my students a huge injustice, even though I considered myself helping them.  The shifts in math education in Louisiana are attempting to right the wrong for our kids.  

Math concepts used to be taught singularly, giving no insight to students into how they all built upon each other.  I was always told that math was a building skill, but I saw no evidence of that fact.  With the new shifts in math education there is coherence.  Students are able to connect the foundational skills learned in previous grades with what they are learning now.  Louisiana State Standards also make it possible to focus deeply on the major work of each grade.  Before LSS there were so many standards that it wasn’t possible to teach them all in just one school year.  Teachers only had time to teach the students how to do it without any time or regard to why they were doing it.  The new standards have the procedural skill and fluency, conceptual knowledge, and the application built into them.  In math, these three pieces together are called “rigor.”

I have witnessed the shifts in action at my school this week.  I had recently learned a new strategy called Number Talks for teaching fluency in the classroom.  A Number Talk is an activity where the the teacher gives the student a fluency equation but no pencil and paper to solve it.  The students are given a few minutes of “think time,” and then the teacher calls on students to describe in detail the process that went on in their brain to solve the equation.  While the student is explaining, the teacher writes and draws exactly what the student is saying. Although I teach fifth and sixth grade math, I wanted to share the strategy with some of our new teachers in lower elementary and also to see for myself if the strategy could work at all grade levels.  I was welcomed into both a first grade classroom as well as a third grade classroom to model the strategy for the teachers by performing the Number Talk with the students.  In the third grade classroom, I had eight and nine year old children who were able to verbally tell me what was going on in their brain when they solved the simple fluency problem 11x3.  It was amazing to me that some of these tiny little people could thoroughly explain to me the strategy they used to get their answer while I wrote and drew exactly what they said.  Many of the students got the correct answer but some of them didn’t.  But it’s not always about the answer.  As we were having a classroom conversation, even the students who didn’t get the correct answer were learning from their mistakes.  One child even raised her hand because as we were talking, she was studying her strategy that I had scribed on the whiteboard.  When I called on her, she told me that she knew what she did wrong in her strategy.  I grabbed the marker and asked her to tell me how to correct her work.  I was blown away.  

 So here it is. . .  I’ve admitted that I was wrong, and that was hard to do.  But that was my mistake, and I’m learning from it.  Kids need opportunities to make mistakes too, and they must understand that not only is it okay to make mistakes but necessary in order for learning to occur. 

Emily Ogden is the 2018 Richland Parish Elementary Teacher of the Year. She teaches at Start Elementary.

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