Let’s All Be Math People

When is the last time you bought 42 watermelons?

A student at Woodlawn Beach Middle School in Florida told us recently that she saw a textbook that had a math problem about buying 42 watermelons. “Who does that?” she asked. Unless they own a grocery store or a fruit stand, the answer is: no one.

To me, this type of silly question captures the essence of our national challenge in teaching mathematics today.

Our teachers and school districts are under increasing pressure to provide a relevant education that prepares students for the modern workplace—a workplace that looks very different from the one my contemporaries and I entered just a few decades ago.

In this new economy, jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are growing at a faster rate than jobs in other areas, and employers in all industries are looking to hire people who can analyze information, collaborate, communicate, and solve real-world problems.

For these reasons, mathematics instruction is more important than ever. But as a society, many of us are still looking at math from a very dated perspective. The “42 watermelons” question is just an example of that. While that perspective is starting to change, it’s not happening fast enough.

Part of the reason math instruction is slow to change is that many adults have very strong feelings about it. On the one hand, some of today’s parents—and even some teachers—have bad memories about math, reflecting on hours of solving problems that had no meaning or relevance to their lives. Unfortunately, I believe these types of experiences have left many of us believing we are not “math people.”

Yet parents, teachers, school administrators, business leaders, and policymakers recognize the importance of math and feel like not enough is being done to prepare our children to be successful in the jobs of tomorrow.

We know our children must be “math people,” at least to some extent, in order to be college- and
career-ready. So how can we ensure we are providing students with the math education and tools that will support their success? I see three broad steps—Recommit, Engage, and Equip.

Recommit

As a nation, we must recommit to providing all children a strong education in every discipline that prepares them to succeed in a global society. Certainly, this work is under way. We are starting to realize that the real power of mathematics is that it teaches our students how to think analytically and creatively so they figure out how to solve problems on their own.

But this requires a different way of teaching math and a different set of resources to support the development of 21st century problem-solving skills. It’s a significant culture shift in our education system and one that is long overdue.

To fully make this shift, our commitment to change must now stretch from the colleges and universities preparing our teachers to the school districts hiring our educators and to the companies, non-profits, and foundations providing tools and resources for the classroom. Even if we do not consider ourselves “math people,” we need to make sure our children are.

Engage

Rafranz Davis, an instructional specialist in the Arlington (TX) Independent School District, says the math lessons she truly remembers are the ones that were interactive and hands-on and gave her the chance to “experience math.” She says, “Experiencing math is recognizing the ‘why’ of a problem and desiring to not only solve it but also hopefully stimulate even deeper thinking.”

I think Rafranz has captured the essence of what 21st century math instruction really is—it’s engaging students in solving real-world problems and teaching them how to think.

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Students respond to math problems when they mean something to them.

And yet instructional materials are still filled with formulas and questions asking which train will arrive first or how students will distribute a nonsensical number of watermelons.

Our standards have been upgraded, and our teachers are doing the best they can. But textbook publishers simply haven’t provided the engaging, interactive resources our educators need to deliver relevant math instruction.

Equip

Digital resources offer great opportunities to truly engage our students in math, but so far we have not tapped into that power in a meaningful way. I want to be clear—this is about more than devices. After all, a device is only as good as the content it can access and the teacher guiding the learning.

It is up to those of us serving educators and students to work together to provide fully digital math curricula and resources that both mirror students’ use of technology outside the classroom and are aligned to the high expectations of a global economy.

For students, this digital curriculum must be inquiry-based and infused with interactive lessons, games, and multimedia that can bring math to life for them. Learning math can no longer be a passive activity—our children must be actively involved in their learning and see math’s connection to the real world.

A student uses Discovery Education Math Techbook on his laptop.

A student uses Discovery Education Math Techbook on his laptop.

For educators, we must offer just-in-time professional development and collaboration tools that help them develop powerful, engaging lessons while providing tools to individualize instruction and offer as-needed support and interventions.

And for parents, we must provide ways for them to support their children’s learning at home, even if Mom and Dad are still having flashbacks to their own childhood math lessons.

I would urge all education stakeholders to create new, innovative resources and professional development strategies that will take us beyond the paper textbook, worksheets, and unrealistic watermelon questions. Together, we can support our teachers as they help our students experience math in a way that prepares them for success today and in the future.

For the sake of today’s students, let’s all be math people.


42 Watermelons Reference: http://www.discoveryeducation.com/what-we-offer/techbook-digital-textbooks/math/index.cfm (in video)

Rafranz Davis Reference: http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/blog/2014/11/12/what-does-it-mean-to-experience-math/


This article was written by Discovery Education SVP Scott Kinney for EdNET News. Subscribe to EdNET News Alert, your weekly guide to headline news, insightful education market commentary, and personal news in the popular column She Snoops for Scoops at www.EdNETInsight.com.

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5 Comments

  1. Nidhi said:

    Well said… Maths needs to be taught with more practical application in life. I never knew that we can apply techniques like just-in-time professional development and collaboration tools to educate kids also. I would hopefully use this in my class!

  2. Renee said:

    Great article, very relevant! Even by grade 4, some kids already feel they aren’t good at Math, that Math is boring, or too hard. I have been trying to make Math class more engaging by using a variety of tools, to create an atmosphere where learning math is fun. Getting parents on board with what kids need to learn can be a challenge, as they tell me they can’t always help their kids at home with the new ways of teaching math.

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