Steve Frey

## Do you hear the theme song to “Jaws” whenever you read through a math word problem?

Do you wake up screaming from nightmares trying to recall the difference between the communicative and associative properties?

Do irrational numbers make you crazy? Do you think a rhombus takes children on field trips? Read on!

At the last Radford City School Board meeting, the board and district administrators had an excellent discussion regarding math. They talked about various ways to encourage students to embrace math more whole-heartedly. Here are some ideas.

A definite place to start is with the adults. What is your attitude regarding math? At home, it is vital that you convey a positive attitude toward math with your children (even if you have to put on a pretend smile and clutch the bottom of the table).

Sometimes parents who had a difficult time with math create a self-fulfilling prophecy by passing on insecurities to their children.

So whatever you do, be positive and know that everyone can learn math, especially today when teachers have so many great math strategies/instructional techniques/technology at their fingertips.

Have a growth mindset. Teachers will in school. Let your child know that with practice and a little grit or persistence, she will master and enjoy math. Hey, she may even love it.

In the past, some teachers would group students and sometimes move through the curriculum very slowly. Eventually, these students would be so far behind that they would never catch up.

Teachers today have high expectations for all students and expose them all to the complete curriculum.

They differentiate instruction for students (sometimes in mini-lessons) by providing additional exposure for those who need it and enrichment for those who have demonstrated an understanding of the concepts.

Something emphasized at the board meeting was finding ways to make the material relevant for the students.

That is extremely important. Making connections to real-life situations and problem-solving helps the students see math’s relationship to their everyday lives.

That is why teachers create activities and projects where students work in groups to solve a problem or create understanding, often integrated into STEM or STEAM lessons.

Sometimes the teacher teaches conceptual knowledge first and has the students apply it to find a solution. At other times the teacher will have the students create new mathematical understanding through the problem-solving process itself.

In either case, students are working together as a team, learning math in an interesting and exciting manner and also learning from each other.

Another concept that is stressed in school is the importance of creative problem-solving. It is critical that students understand that there is more than one way to solve a problem.

Often, students in the past were taught the limiting idea that there is only one way to find a solution. There are almost always various ways and even multiple algorithms (algorithms are methods for arriving at a solution through, for example, long division), and students should share those methods with each other.

Thinking “outside the box” to solve problems and using different avenues to find solutions is the kind of 21st-century problem-solving students should be using all the time.

The days of writing problems on a chalkboard alone are long gone. Now teachers and students use advanced technology with interactive whiteboards and computers, for example.

Quick simulations, video explanations, and step-by-step demonstrations are just a few of the tools teachers have available. Exposing students to technology that they can use to solve problems, graph, illustrate etc. helps lessons come alive for them.

It is important for students to understand why math works the way it does rather than just learning a formula.

For example, in the past, students would be taught that one half the base times the height is the area of a triangle.

Today, the teacher will illustrate how that formula comes from the area of a rectangle and that the triangle can be just half of that rectangle. The students come away with a clear understanding of not only the formula, but also why it works through a concrete, visual example.

In fact, the more concrete the learning, the clearer it will be. That’s why teachers will often use manipulatives (materials students can handle and use) to help students understand relationships like 1-1 correspondence, beginning math facts, shapes and many other concepts.

A goal is to have a sense of automaticity with math facts. This is built up from those concrete manipulatives to repeated practice and games—both pencil and paper and using technology.

Elementary teachers need to have a good understanding of math. That means they need to have a strong math strand in their teacher preparation programs and regular professional development in developing math strategies/instruction.

They also need to have time to work in Professional Learning Communities, or teams, where they can learn, analyze data and share information with each other.

Teachers continually use formative assessment to make sure students understand the material in the lesson. Based on that assessment, they plan opportunities for additional practice as needed. That cycle of initial instruction, practice, feedback and re-teaching is fundamental.

Regular practice of learned skills is essential. In the past, teachers would present a unit on money, time, addition, geometry, or whatever, and might not come back to it until a semester or year-end review.

Now teachers understand the importance of regularly reviewing concepts through intermittent practice so students retain the learning. These practice problems also provide a quick mini-lesson to those students who may need a little stronger handle on the concepts.

It’s vital to teach math vocabulary early and often. For example, the teacher may throw out the term vertex in first grade during a lesson on triangles and shapes.

Some students may retain it right away, while others may need multiple exposures. Teachers want children to see themselves as mathematicians and using correct math terminology is an integral part of that process.

These are just a few ideas that can help children learn math.

By making math relevant, understandable and enjoyable, teachers and parents can help every child be successful and fall in love with it.

In fact, before you know it, they’ll be telling you that math is, well, as easy as Pi!

*Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.*