Problem-solving is the cornerstone of mathematics. Yet, math word problems are a struggle for many students. When word problems are assigned, it’s not uncommon for students to moan and groan, raise their hands with questions, and not do well.
Teachers can’t give students the understanding they need to solve problems. Students must develop it on their own. Teachers can facilitate this process by providing math discussions in which students ask questions, clarify misconceptions, share ideas, compare strategies, and explain their thinking. This, however, requires teachers to take on a different role.
In this article, we’ll look at what this new role looks like.
Less is More
Math teacher effectiveness is usually measured by specific characteristics—such as experience, certifications, and degrees. To see what teaching styles really work in developing math thinkers, you need to look inside the math classroom.
You might see teachers who talk incessantly as they try to give directions, repeat information, tell students how they did, and keep them on task. But talking less will generate more learning as students work to solve problems on their own—without the teacher’s constant help. This may be uncomfortable for teachers used to running the show. That “wait time” while students reflect on their thinking can seem like an eternity. However, it actually increases the quality of student responses. And, by struggling, students learn they really can figure things out.
Accept and Encourage
We’ve all looked at an exam and thought “The kid got all the answers right—that’s all that matters.” The truth is, getting the solution isn’t all that matters. What’s important is getting students to learn the mathematical principles at work in a problem.
A teacher who encourages and accepts a student’s strategies—even though they may be “wrong”—will teach students that math isn’t a set of rules and formulas to be memorized. Rather, it is a way at looking at the world that makes sense. It will help them understand that an answer is not correct, partially correct, or wrong. It can be somewhere in between. And, students who can make a strong case for whatever solution they come up with are on the road to becoming critical thinkers.
Question and Prompt
Questions and prompts can be used to help students retell, make new connections, reflect on their thinking, and share their beliefs about math. A teacher, of course, asks and answers many questions during the course of the school day. However, asking questions in a math discussion is different. The goal is to encourage a student to think. Teachers must resist the temptation to provide too much information—or even the solution. It takes skill and practice to not go overboard.
This requires having a plan and intentionally asking questions that are meaningful and that stimulate further thinking. Teachers should aim for questions that do not require a yes/no answer or “lead” the students to the answer. A simple question like “How do you know?” will get students to think about their answers and how they got there.
Think Out Loud
Teachers don’t have to pretend to know all the answers. By working through a problem out loud with their class, they can demonstrate their decision-making, model their problem-solving process, and open new doors of possibilities for their children. Even if teachers have to correct a statement or change direction, it’s okay. Seeing teachers struggle will show students perseverance in action. It also will demonstrate the importance of reflection.
For a closer look at how to refine your teaching to better engage children in math, check out SDE’s webinar Use Your Math Power! (Gr. K–3) by veteran classroom teacher and math coach Nancy Belkov.