Thursday, April 24, 2008

Easy approaches make learning math hard

MSNBC reports today that current math teaching methods may be doing our children more harm than good.

Frustrated math students may have a good excuse — some of the teaching methods meant to make math more relevant may in fact be making it harder to understand, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

They said students who were taught abstract math concepts fared better in experiments than those taught with real-world examples, such as story problems.

Adding extraneous details makes it hard for students to extract the basic mathematical concepts and apply them to new problems, they said.

The entire article can be seen here.

When I was on a hunt for a math curriculum I couldn't get over the amount of curricula that used story problems in first grade math. It makes no sense to me to be giving children who are just learning to read and added layer of complexity to learning math.

I have deliberately steered away from story problems with my first graders. I teach math concepts and am waiting a few years before I introduce word problems.

The other thing that drew me to Prof B math was that this curriculum does not use manipulatives. I know the current trend is to use lots of manipulatives but I have always thought that they complicate the issue.

This study appears to bear out my thinking.

To find out the best methods of teaching basic math concepts, the researchers conducted several experiments using college students in which some students were taught concepts using basic symbols, while others were taught with concrete examples.

For example, they studied different approaches at teaching the basic mathematical property of commutativity — that you can switch up the order of elements and still get the same answer, as in 3 + 2 or 2 + 3 equals 5.

Some students learned the concepts using generic symbols. Others were taught with concrete examples such as pictures of measuring cups filled with liquid, or slices of pizza or tennis balls in a container.

While all of the students were able to master these concepts easily, the students who first learned math concepts using abstract symbols were better able to transfer that learning to other problems when tested.

What ever method of teaching math is the right one, my kids are getting a fairly "old-fashioned" math education that relies on learning concepts thoroughly and hierarchically with few bells and whistles.

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