The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

It’s a Math, Math, Math, Math World

Way back when, during my university training, I remember a professor sharing a book with us. I don’t remember if this professor was a content-area  instructor for math or literacy, but I remember the book. It had to do with how integral mathematics are to our day-to-day lives. The book illustrated this (quite literally, since it was a picture book) by showing what various everyday items, such as newspapers, houses, and street signs, would look like without any numbers. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this book! What I do remember is being struck with how true it is that math is a part of everything we do.

Now, sure, most of us don’t solve differential equations in our heads or figure out logarithms while shopping, but math is all around us. When we drive our cars and we notice our fuel gauges, tachometers, and speedometers, we are using math. And when we adjust our speed, we are actually performing some really impressive mathematics without even realising it! For our day-to-day purposes, we can probably get by with knowing basic arithmetic. So why do we have to learn so much complex math? After all, nearly every college graduate has to take a quantitative reasoning course, and that is almost always met by taking calculus.

The answer, at least the answer I give, is simple: it isn’t about the numbers; it is about the process. Just as with everything else we do in school, the end result is only part of the equation. The most important part is the process; how we learn, how we think, and understanding both how we learn as we think and how we think as we learn. The big fancy word for this, which I tell my fourth graders on a regular basis, even though most of them, if not all of them, are unable to fully process what it means, is metacognition. (On a completely unrelated note, I would hate to try to diagram that sentence. Way too many clauses!)

So even though I am sure my students think I was being really mean today by making them do math almost all morning and afternoon, there is a reason behind it: I want my students to learn how to think long, think hard, and think well. If they can do that, and if they can read literately, then they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. They may need to think of creative ways to do it, but I have no doubt that they can. And it surely beats being the guy or girl at McDonald’s who cooks the fries all day long!


4 responses

  1. I often wonder about the math we are required to learn, especially when we get to college. I know part of why I had to take calculus was for the reason you mentioned, quantitative reasoning. However, I feel like sometimes the basic math that we have to do every day is ignored in that pursuit. Many of my friends can’t add up simple numbers in their head, or have difficulty calculating a tip. I know the ubiquitous calculator is partially to blame. It’s the “who needs to be able to add when I can whip out a cell phone” attitude.

    I’m grateful that I have a mom that is also a teacher. Growing up, she would make us add our own scores when playing games like Yahtzee, or on long car trips would have us try and figure out our speed by timing the distance between mile markers. Thanks to that constant use of math, I can still do basic math.

    January 10, 2012 at 9:30 pm

  2. It’s true; far too many people lose the ability to do the simple tasks in the pursuit of learning the complex. We have to be able to retain the fundamental skills. The fact that my only required college-level math course, after testing out of calculus, was “Theory of Arithmetic” is a sad indicator of this. I was taught how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do some probability. Not how to teach it; how to do it.

    January 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  3. scott

    Very awesome! I’m so glad that you ate a teacher.

    How do you teach the students to apply the metacognitive skills they learn while doing math to other subjects and other aspects of their lives? Or, more generally, how do you teach them to expand domain-specific metacognition to domain-general metacognition?

    On a related note, I feel like a person’s moderate understanding of mathematics is often under-utilized when it comes to basic statements and arguments related to statistics and logic. We see it a lot lately in the political debates. Each side spews out various statements about how big or small certain numbers are about so and so and the audience has a very difficult time processing this new piece of information. Same goes for statements of logic. Some one will claim that because of x it means that y is true. It seems like people have a difficult time analyzing and processing these kinds of statements in relation to the other information that they have seen or heard.

    Any thoughts?

    I don’t expect people to formally verify every piece of information that they get, but it would be nice if they could process it in some useful way–more than in just an emotional way like, “oh wow, that sounds bad.”

    January 11, 2012 at 7:02 am

  4. If you ever remember the name of that book,please tell me. Because now I want to read it because it sounds awesome!

    January 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

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