Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SMPs for Parents and Other Civilians: MP 1 (Part 1)

This is the first follow-up post to a previous one aimed at parents and other non-math teachers, The Real Power of Studying Mathematics, about the significance of the Standards for Mathematical practice.

I was talking to someone once about this practice (MP 1, "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them") and she asked me, "Isn't that just, like, doing math?"

Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that if you can't make sense of a problem, you're probably not going to get very far toward solving it. And if you can't persevere, you probably won't get to a solution even if you can make sense of the problem. In some ways, MP 1 is a kind of "Gateway Practice"; if you struggle to make sense and persevere, it's difficult to get much of any math done at all.

No, in that MP 1 is more of a starting point, a 'necessary' condition for doing powerful mathematics, but it is far from sufficient. You made sense of a problem enough to get started? Great! You're hanging in there and persevering? Also great! But there is a lot more to be said regarding how students are able to make sense of problems, and a lot to be said about how effective and efficient our perseverance is, and more yet to be said about what we do once we have solved a problem. All of that is what we get from the other seven practices.

Let us break MP 1 down into its two constituent parts:

    1) Make sense of problems.

    2) Persevere in solving problems.

Today we'll focus on what it means to make sense of problems; in the next post we'll come back to what it means to persevere in solving them.

So...what does it mean to make sense of a problem?

Ask any math teacher; if s/he had a nickel for every time a kid read a problem and threw up their hand to proclaim "I don't get it!," s/he'd have a whole lot of nickels.

To make sense of a problem means to read or look at a problem, comprehend the information that's being communicated, and be able to ask yourself, "What mathematics is involved in solving this problem? How will I know when I have an answer, and what will the answer mean?"

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Real Power of Studying Mathematics

Hint: It's not knowing 17 different ways to solve a quadratic equation.

As the wee progeny of many of my friends and family began to wind their way through elementary (and middle???) school, I've had a number of conversations lately with adults who work outside of education about what it means to have a "good" math education and/or a "good" math teacher and in particular what should they look for in a school or classroom to know that their child is going to get a decent mathematical education.

It's a very tricky, very loaded question that I always struggle to answer in any helpful way. I mean, I can certainly list any number of elements I would hope to see in any math classroom my child were going to spend time in. For example:

  • A focused, coherent, and rigorous curriculum that aligns at least pretty well with the Common Core
  • A balance of procedural, conceptual, and problem solving/application elements
  • A focus on making sense of mathematics rather than on "answer-getting"
  • Rich, open-ended opportunities for tinkering, discovery, and general "mathematical play"
  • Procedural fluency that is built on conceptual understanding and robust number sense rather than rote memorization
  • De-emphasizing speed, but without altogether abandoning the idea of "mathematical efficiency"
  • Explicit discussion of the myriad ways of accessing and making sense of mathematics (multiple representations, multiple solutions, etc.)
  • Explicit discussion of the brain science that underlies fixed vs. growth mindsets
  • Celebration of mistakes as a necessary part of the learning process that enriches and enhances our understanding
  • Opportunities for collaboration with diverse peers (and I mean diverse in every sense of the word)