In a commentary titled “We’re Teaching Math All Wrong,” (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/298783051.html) author Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, states that we are approaching the teaching of math incorrectly and that for some students for whom math does not come naturally or easily we should teach them only arithmetic through third grade for 20 minutes a day. Instead of teaching them math, Engel feels that we should allow these math-averse kids to gravitate towards reading and the kinds of play that involve abstract thinking and problem solving.
Clearly, Engle is thinking outside of the box. She feels that the time invested in teaching math to hard to reach students isn’t worth it. Instead, the time spent teaching math could be better spent developing abstract, critical thinking skills through different avenues.
Although not overtly stated, Engle’s approach seems to place the blame of not learning math on the student. She is excusing the teacher and the curriculum. According to this line of thinking, if a student isn’t good at something, let’s just ignore it and move to something that he can handle. I wasn’t good at art in school. (I still struggle producing creative pieces.) Does that mean that I should have been excused from art classes so that I could go to gym class where I excelled? If not for the art classes in which I struggled, I might never have grown to appreciate art as I do today. Perhaps I appreciate art more as an adult because it was such a struggle for me as a child.
Rather than throwing in the towel with respect to teaching math in the early grades, let’s examine what we are teaching, why we teach what we do, and how we teach the subject matter. I think we will find that we spend far too much time teaching math algorithms and procedures in the early grades instead of teaching number sense and conceptual mathematical principles. If students aren’t grounded in number sense and early concepts of geometry, measurement, patterns, collecting and organizing, and classifying and categorizing, it makes absolutely no sense to be teaching them mathematical algorithms and operations.
Let’s not run away from teaching math to students for whom math is difficult. As adults, let’s examine our approach to the teaching of math and see if we can do better in the way we deliver math instruction.