Keep a positive attitude about math

By Gregory Sparks on July 24, 2013
As an elementary teacher, I often heard parents exclaim in front of their children: “Math was never really my thing. I hated it!” or “I am sure Tyler inherited his math phobia from me!” or “My wife has to help Emily with her homework. I just don’t get all this ‘new math’ stuff!”

Children constantly hear these comments and begin to think it’s okay to dislike math. They start to believe math is scary, confusing, or not important or relevant in life.

Standardized test scores for junior math in several provinces have either declined or stagnated in recent years. This bears out in junior classrooms where many students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 are feeling discouraged in math, are losing interest and are falling behind.

Math = Fun

Initially, children come to school loving “math” activities (sorting, counting, organizing, ordering). They are inquisitive and active problem solvers. In Grades 1, 2 and 3, children use manipulatives such as blocks, counters, tiles, cubes and shapes. This gives them a varied, visual and tactile understanding of abstract mathematical concepts. In the beginning, math is fun! But then the troubles begin.

In the junior grades, math is taught differently. There are more formulas, procedures (algorithms) and word problems, which require the application of knowledge. They can be particularly daunting because many students have diffi culty generalizing and applying their learning to different contexts.

Often they think they “know” the material, but when they need to actually apply the knowledge to solve a word problem, they are lost. It’s a double whammy against success. In Grades 4, 5 and 6, there is more content and more complex and abstract concepts. At the same time, extracurricular activities start to vie for students’ time. To many students, math seems much harder, more work, uncool, and often, quite pointless.

Times have changed

Parents often get confused and frustrated when they help with homework. They are rusty and they have forgotten a lot of the material. Or they cannot understand the content and processes of their child’s math. Teaching through problem solving, oral presentations of solutions, arrays, peer assessment, rubrics, open-ended questions, success criteria, and group work are a part of today’s math classes. There is less emphasis on memorization and rote learning and more emphasis on developing students’ thinking and deeper understanding of math concepts…the “big ideas”.

Genuine interest and support

What kinds of math messages are we giving our children? And more importantly, why do we continue to do this? Communicating negative messages hinders our children’s progress in math, and this is a first step everyone can take. Start being positive about math!

Parents who want to help their child should curb the negative comments and begin to show genuine interest and encouragement in their child’s math program in a positive, supportive way.

If you’re unsure where to begin, speak to your child’s teacher about how to work together.

How can parents help

Always communicate positive messages about math to your child. Children will be more successful in math if:
  • They believe math is worthwhile and valuable.
  • They want to do well in math.
  • They believe they can do well in math.
  • They receive positive messages, such as “Math is important” or “You can be successful in math.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.

By Gregory Sparks| July 24, 2013

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