July 15, 2019

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.

Instruction vs. Experience

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.  

Setting Your Child Up for Success

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.

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