What is the point of math?

On a recent jaunt to the outlet mall, I was shocked and saddened by a phone call from a family member who was in another store and wanted to know what 30% off of $70 was.  Now, when I asked what 10% of $70 was, she could tell me.  When I asked what percent she was paying for if 30% was being taken off, she could tell me.  When I asked how knowing 10% could aid in figuring this out, she was dumbfounded.  In addition to this, she had an iPhone with a calculator that she could have used, but wasn’t sure what to punch in.  This is an A student who knows all her basic facts and algorithms.

I beg the question, how do we ensure that students can apply the knowledge and skills that we want them to have?  Is math only so we can be an A, B, C, or D student or is it so we can navigate both small and large problems that we encounter in everyday life?  Is knowing the formula for an area important or is it more important to know when to use it because we can always look the formula up?  Is memorizing facts important or is knowing what fact or procedure needs to be used?  Do we want thinkers or do we want robots?  I hear people arguing all the time that we need to “go back to the basics”.  I am not even really sure what that means.  What I do know, is that going backwards is not preparing students for what is ahead of them.  I believe that this reversion that many are in favour of will lead to the same fate as many have met with to date – get to grade 10 or 11 and then the wheels fall off.

I would argue that math instruction hasn’t changed significantly since I was a child.  The research around effective instruction and learning has changed significantly, but realistically, in many classrooms everyday, it’s not that different.   We still value memorization, rote practice, artificial textbook problems, silent seatwork, drills and tests, yet none of this is important outside of school.

Let’s equip our next generation, if not for big problems, at least for discounts at the outlet mall!

Exploding Dots with James Tanton

I recently attended the Ontario Association for Math Educators (OAME) Conference at Humber College.  One of the keynote speakers was James Tanton.  He spoke about Exploding Dots – his method, if you will, for developing conceptual understanding of number systems and operations.  His philosophy on maths is refreshing and exciting as he aims to “to promote thinking and joyous doing, conceptual understanding over rote practice and memorization.”  I was intrigued and fascinated as he led us through a range of mathematical concepts and operations using these dots.  Mind blown!!!  Drop the mic.