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March 23, 2012

How You Teach Math Is As Important As Why You Teach It

Written By: Erin Klein
How You Teach Math Is As Important As Why You Teach It

How You Teach Math Is As Important As Why You Teach It

I was very excited to see that this month’s topic for Really Good Stuff was math.  I’ve always found math to be incredibly fascinating subject to teach, as there are so many different ways in which children can find their breakthroughs with the subject.   As a 2nd grade teacher, I am always on the lookout for new and inventive ways to help my students develop their math skills.

How You Teach Math

I personally believe that the most important technique that can be utilized when teaching math in an elementary setting is the use of interaction.  This interaction can and should come from a wide variety of sources.  While, I have always been a supporter of the integration of technology in the classroom, I’m not speaking directly about the use of interactive whiteboards or tablets or really any other specific piece of technology.  I’m talking more about the interaction of anything and everything you find  that you can include in your math lessons.

We all know that we have learners in our classrooms that learn differently, and need differentiated instruction.  There are tons of great teachers out there who do a fantastic job of making their lessons interactive, fun, and relevant.  From my experiences, I’ve found that it appears more common for educators to adopt the principles of interaction to literacy and the sciences, than what occurs in a math classroom.  I believe this often ties into how we were taught as students ourselves.

How We Were Taught

Math when I was in school was a lot of lecture, with the teacher playing the role of the sage on the stage, and students reciting multiplication tables or doing massive amounts of math problems, often with little feedback besides a big red X through an incorrect answer.  Then we would sometimes not receive our feedback regarding the incorrect answers until we had already taken the unit assessment, because the teacher assigned too much homework for herself to grade.  Finally, we would do an activity where there would be 20 problems on the board, everybody would solve one each, and then we would simply move on to something else, with little to no feedback, losing an opportunity for good interaction and rendering it pointless.  And this wasn’t just one class or teacher; I saw this activity straight through college graduation.  Overabundance of math problems, under abundance of feedback and interaction.

Sure, many of the tools we have today were not available 20 years ago.  There were not interactive white boards or math videos on YouTube or tablet computers, but there were some great math tools just lying around the room that really could help develop skills.  This is where the good math memories come to me.  Some of my best experiences with math as a student and the easiest learning experiences for me included the usage of rulers, shapes, clocks, blocks—all of these tools were great for teaching, and I had several teachers who did a great job with them.  I can still remember some of the words to a song that one of my teachers had created to help learn shapes and geometry.  All of these are different forms of interaction, and all left a vivid memory in my head that I can still recall years later.

The way that I have found in my own classroom to help develop as many students as possible, given the ever present constraint of time, is to make sure to mix up the styles and use plenty of interaction.  We all have a curriculum pack for math which includes many things—math games, hands on activities, pre-lessons, in-class work, homework, etc.  All of these things are included for a reason, and it’s because everybody learns a little bit differently.  Skipping the games and hands on stuff to go straight to the lecture leaves at least half of your class behind.  Having all the students each measure their math book may teach them how to use a ruler but it leaves out the question of why to use a ruler.  If they all are measuring the exact same thing at the exact same time, it takes all of the wonderment away from measuring stuff.  Let them measure the things they want to measure—like their head, or their shoe, or whatever they want to measure.

The main questions I ask myself when I am creating a lesson plan for my class are the following:  “Why are they going to remember this?”  “How are they going to remember this?”  These are very similar, but very different questions.  The “why” addresses whether or not I have related to them what the purpose of this lesson is, the “how” addresses whether or not I can find a way to make them connect to the lesson and be able to apply it in real life.  I believe both of these can be addressed through multiple forms of interaction within the classroom.


About the Author

Erin Klein is a second grade teacher in Michigan and author of the award winning edu tech blog, Kleinspiration.  She is also a certified SMART Board Trainer and SMART Exemplary Educator.  Erin serves as the Michigan Reading Association’s co-technology chairperson and is a member of The National Writing Project.


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  • Kathi Ratcliffe
    March 25, 2012

    I had an epiphany during my math pedagogy course, after the professor urged us to “wake up every morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘I LOVE MATH!'” That was not my mindset at that time, but in processing her comment, I came to a conclusion that has guided my last 8 years of teaching: if I do not bring the same passion and creativity and love of math to my students that I do for reading, I am slamming a door in their faces that may take a long, long time to open again.

    A student in my classroom who says “I hate math!” has me in their face in the next second, exclaiming, “That’s wonderful! I used to hate math, but now I love it! I get to teach you how to love it, too!” They look quite surprised, but they are willing to go on the journey with me.

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