Does your child enjoy math class? When you see them doing their math homework, does it feel like they don’t really get the concepts? Do they appear to blindly apply strategies they’ve been taught in class to solve their homework problems? In the classroom, many children are unable to develop a solid math foundation due to the typical way math is taught. The good news is, you can remedy this issue at home by simply looking at math instruction through a new lens — so that your child goes into the classroom prepared to take on mathematical challenges.
Teachers are accustomed to teaching mathematics through instruction. It’s not that this strategy is incorrect; it’s simply the most practical strategy to employ when standing in front of a classroom full of students. When a student doesn’t get a math concept, a teacher may then instruct the students on ‘how’ to solve a problem with a step-by-step procedure to memorize and use. The issue with this is, strategies are better discovered than memorized. If your child simply memorizes a strategy, can you be sure they truly understand the concept and language, even if they can get the right answer?Think of it this way: You can’t really instruct a child on what the color red is. You can show a child red objects and you can label them as red, but you can’t necessarily tell them what red is. Even if you read the definition of “red” in the dictionary, your child still won’t understand what red is without seeing and experiencing the color for themselves.In the same way, how do you describe addition to a child? “5+4” means “Give me five objects; give me four more objects; now how many do I have?” If a student has not had the experience of this simple activity, the only thing that can be done, besides going back to ensure the fundamentals are understood, is to memorize the answers.After all, there is a test coming up!Imagine walking into a third-year lecture in organic biochemistry (or, if you are a biochemist, a third-year lecture in graduate mathematics). The lecture is full of jargon. One university student I know described it as “It sounds like they are speaking English, but I have no idea what they are saying!” This is what three out of four elementary students experience in math class. Children are being tested on the materials they don’t understand. Memorization is the only strategy that appears to work!Eventually, this process will fail. If the prior math concepts were not understood, memorization as a strategy for passing homework and tests no longer works when they get into more advanced mathematics curriculum such as algebra.For many parents, they never understand that this — the mere memorization of procedures to solve problems without any understanding to back it up — is what’s happening with their child. There is no idea of what their child may be going through in the classroom. Children learn math through logic and reasoning. Just like with the colors, the best way to have children understand math is by giving a child mathematical experiences at his or her level and then placing the language around it. By doing this, your child discovers strategies and procedures for solving math problems, rather than just memorizing some answers. This is how they build intuition and problem-solving skills.
We can’t blame this issue entirely on the school system and teachers. Research shows if children come into kindergarten understanding mathematical concepts, then the U.S. school system produces great students. That’s where working with your child at home gives them a huge advantage. In nearly every study on education, outcomes are vastly improved when parents are involved in the learning process. Being able to effectively teach my child mathematics at home is the reason I created the Elephant Learning platform. Not only does it simultaneously teach and evaluate, but based on the evaluations, we provide valuable feedback to parents on how to make further progress outside of the app with fun activities such as board games. Helping your child understand math concepts at home is not about instruction or showing them how to solve problems. For example, the Elephant Learning app does not “instruct.” We define, and we give students math experiences that help them comprehend math concepts.It goes back to the concept of teaching “red”. It’s giving the child the experiences of “red” versus giving them a definition of “red” that helps them truly understand what the color is and how to recognize it. The same can be said for math. When parents use Elephant Learning as directed, we receive testimonials from parents raving about how their children have become more confident. They do better on tests and actually enjoying math class because they finally understand the teacher’s instructions. Without this kind of support, children with math anxiety, unfortunately, become adults with math anxiety.
Math anxiety — a fear of getting math concepts and problems wrong and the resulting avoidance of math because of that — is something I’ve seen many times over my life and not just in children. It’s just as prevalent in adults and, believe it or not, despite my PhD in math, I experienced math anxiety as a child, too. While some children allowed their math anxiety to grow into a lifelong avoidance of math, mine fueled my competitive spirit and led me to push ahead of my peers, learning advanced math concepts even when I wasn’t able to get into the advanced math classes my middle school offered.
It is never too late to understand math. At a young age, many of us had the experience of being told that “we are just not a numbers person.” Books have been written on this social phenomena, and half of all Americans report Math anxiety. As it turns out, mathematics is really about learning jargon, a jargon that is so fundamental to humanity that we consider it vocabulary.
At the end of the day, algebra comes down to these three steps: define, recognize and produce. No matter if your child is in middle school or a PhD math program, it’s all about defining (can you understand it?), recognizing (can you identify it?), and producing (can you use it to produce results or new research?). If you can help your child with these three aspects of algebra at home, they’ll be better set up for success in the classroom and the future.
Most students learn to multiply in school by memorizing their multiplication tables. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing multiplication tables, but a child must know what the multiplication tables mean. If they’re multiplying seven by six, they need to have that picture in the back of their head of six groups of seven or seven groups of six. If not, they don’t have a true understanding of what multiplication actually is and it won’t serve them later on in life.Take, for example, a child who knows that five times four is 20. She can solve the multiplication problem with ease.
In early elementary education, the first concepts that we work with are counting and comparisons — that is, quantity comparisons versus what's bigger and smaller. We might show a child an image of four objects and an image with 12 objects, and ask them to identify which has more or fewer. It's important for children to know the difference because it sets the stage for addition and subtraction.
Making math fun for your child within the confines of your everyday world is easy. Let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk with your child and they say, “Oh, there’s a train.” That’s an opportunity for you to ask how many train cars they can see. How many engines are on the train? Even if it’s just their toys sitting out on the floor, you could ask them, “Can you give me three toy dogs right now?” Then your child has to identify what’s a dog, what’s not a dog and how many of them equal three.Take whatever your child can identify and formulate a math lesson that’s on their level.