Friday, June 20, 2008

Hangin' It All Together

In a previous post, I referenced Dr. Wickelgren's comparison of the traditional approach and "new math's discovery" approach to teaching math concepts. In his book, Math Coach, A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Succeed in Math, he made the following observation about the traditional approach:

"The traditional approach, in which classes are arranged by topics such as arithmetic, fractions, algebra, and geometry that build from one level to the next, has been used for decades for good reason. The material within each subject hangs together in logical ways, and is typically broken down into smaller units within which knowledge is even more tightly linked. Teaching students to hang together closely related pieces of knowledge makes sense and produces a deep understanding of a subject."

I've been blessed to teach a very structured, incremental math program. Students who are used to struggling in math tell me over and over that they "get math" for the first time. Now, I see why. Closely related pieces of knowledge "hang together" easily and make sense to them. The slow, incremental steps mean that they practice and master the small pieces, one at a time. Then those pieces are carefully linked to other small pieces and the students see the logical relationship and how they are connected.

Contrast that to a sixth grade book I was using recently to tutor a student. All of the definitions and all of the formulas were thrown together in quick succession, so that my student was thoroughly overwhelmed and confused. (The students are given only that chapter to memorize them all, while trying to learn how to use them, all at the same time. ) It's madness!

And sadly there's not usually much practice of each small piece of knowledge, isolated from all of the other pieces. (Remember lack of practice is a characteristic of "new math.") Here's the line up: Teach one formula, and maybe do a little work. Then the next day, along comes the next formula, and then the next day, another formula. The students are soon doing problems of each formula, before they have mastered and are comfortable with the first one. This is NOT how kids learn.

There was nothing to "hang" the second , or the third, on. It was as if there were pieces floating around in the air and the student saw them all and had no idea which of them was related to what he was being expected to to next. There were no hooks to hang anything on because there had been no time for mastery.

Teachers probably feel that they don't have time for mastery because of the number of chapters they know they must cover. This book was huge!

And if smart kids have trouble with it all hitting them at once, imagine the weaker student's response. They are overwhelmed.

This is not how kids learn!!

Students must see how the pieces fit and hang together. And traditional math helps them do that.

Traditional math is wonderful! It's beautiful!! It's joyful! It's exciting!! It's liberating!! It's confidence-building! It's knowing I can succeed!!

It's like a kid who can finally ride a bicycle by himself!!

Traditional math helps kids do what they all want to do -- learn! I've never seen a kid who didn't want to learn. Learning new things is fun. Learning how to do something hard is even better!


concerned said...

I'm really enjoying your new blog!

The book you're reading, Math Coach, A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Succeed in Math, by Wayne A. Wickelgren, Ph.D. sounds great!

From what you've written about the book, it seems to be a play on words in that it coaches parents on ways to evaluate the school's math program and assist their child as needed in a traditional approach at home.

This is very interesting when you consider the spin out there about "math coaches" - of course, the best coaches are in the child's home. :D

I look forward to reading the book!

Concerned Teacher said...

I'm only in Part 1 of this book, which as you've correctly gleaned, helps parents identify "new math" programs. Part 2 helps parents "coach" their children and I look forward to getting there.

I'm sorry if I'm giving the impression that this book is just about evaluating a school's math program.

I'm just taking tooooo long on Part !.