Thursday, March 6, 2014

Unlike the Humanities, Math just doesn't have one right answer

This was written by Jeffrey Benson who is an education consultant and school coach. He is the author of the forthcoming ASCD book Hanging In: Working with Challenging Students (January 2014). He wrote the article "100 Repetitions" in the October 2012 issue of Educational Leadership magazine. This post was originally found here.

by Jeffrey Benson

All too often, math teachers sit in silent complicity when it is said that math is exact and linear—humanities are not. Math is about answers that are right and wrong—humanities are not. If math teachers don't interrupt the status quo, who will? To challenge conventional thinking about mathematics education, consider sharing and starting a discussion with colleagues around this narrative from an alternate universe:

In my humanities class, I learn that there is only one correct way to spell a word—my teacher says that spelling is not a matter of opinion. My teacher tells me to identify the word in a sentence that is a pronoun—apparently there are words that are pronouns and ones that aren't. I am told that there are fragments and there are complete sentences, and the difference is clear. If I am talking about a novel we have read, I have to tell the facts in the exact order they happened. There are rules for how you are supposed to use commas and apostrophes. I have to capitalize some words and not others—as if that really makes a difference in being understood most of the time. Those are the rules, I am told. People seem to care that I know what capital city belongs to what country, and you can't mix those up! My teacher says that some books are too hard for us to read, and some books are too easy for us, because you are supposed to read certain books at a certain age—it's developmental.

My math class is where I really get to think. Here's some of the stuff I have done:
  • I made a poster explaining when it would be best to say something was "one third" and when it would be best to say it was 33 percent. It isn't always clear when you should use decimals or fractions or percents to describe a portion of something. My teacher says knowing how to communicate a mathematical idea depends on your audience and your intentions.
  • I had to look at baseball statistics about shortstops and defend my reason why one of them was the best choice to get a five-year contract. Wow, that was hard! My best friend and I had very different opinions. My teacher gave us good grades for how well we prioritized the different data. He said there was no one right answer, of course—just like real life!
  • My teacher put an equation on the board and said there were a few ways to solve it. He wanted us to pick a way to solve it that would be best if our life depended on getting it right; a method if we wanted to have the most fun trying a wacky way; and a method that was the quickest, even if it might sometimes cause you to make a careless error.
  • He showed us a shape we had never seen before. We had to experiment with rulers and protractors and calculators and come up with the area—and then we had to come up with a formula we could remember. I love when he says, "Try more experiments. That's what math is about."
  • My small group was given a big jar of pennies. We had to come up with five different ways we could estimate the number of pennies in the jar. He is giving the same problem to the kids in a class two grades below mine and two grades above mine.
My math teacher says humanities classes could be fun too, but mostly they are taught like math classes that did only number-crunching, right-and-wrong drills. He says humanities classes could be filled with opinions, creative writing, lots of discussions, and using evidence to back up our own theories. Yeah, right.

With this scenario in mind, think of ways you might flip stereotypes about mathematics teaching and learning on their head. Ask your colleagues and students to consider how to invite mathematical thinking through inquiry and employing a variety of strategies to grapple with real-world problems that don't have clear answers.

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