Relevant, Accessible, Masterful . . . Math!

By Kristin Sanderson

I think I was 12 years old when I realized that the children’s song that was sung to and by me was not about a “shoe-fly.”  It was one of those epiphanies that, as silly as it sounds, re-aligned my understanding of the world.  It was a wonderful revelation (finally the song made sense!) but it was also disorienting and challenged what I had believed was an iron-clad understanding of the lyrics.

I had another one of those insights in my first year as Principal here when I sat in on a 5th and 6th Grade math class and saw algebra equations being “balanced” by children on an actual scale.  With pawns and cubes and other icons to represent variables and number, the meaning of “x” and “y” and the operations I had performed thousands of times with pencil and paper suddenly were three dimensional and alive.

It was as if the floor had fallen out from underneath me, but instead of an empty space, an actual concrete world rose to meet what had long been a gorgeous, intellectual pleasure.  (I love algebra!)  The instruction to subtract or add the same number from each side was physically acted out by students — and the scale came back into balance each time!

From some of our parent comments and questions, it seems others may have experienced a similar challenge to their vision of mathematics during our recent Math Night.   At Miquon, we believe that children need to move from concrete to pictorial to abstract when learning any new concept.  The sheets and sheets of number problems (abstract) that were my — and, possibly most parents’ — usual math homework are an inefficient and incomplete method of building understanding.  Manipulating, sorting, classifying, and counting objects is where our Nursery children begin, and, when approaching a new concept, even our oldest students return to manipulatives and pictorial representations to allow a “solid” grasp of a new concept.

Mastering concepts is just one of five parts to our math program.  To be confident, able, and flexible mathematicians, we believe that children must also gain:

  • appropriate skills (running counter to the myths about progressive education, skill acquisition does require repetition, practice and memorization);
  • knowledge and articulation of processes (we want our students to talk through their work and learn there are multiple ways to solve problems);
  • the ability to step back and think whether the skill or process is reasonable for the problem at hand (a vital metacognitive approach that is so necessary for real world applications); and
  • a positive attitude about mathematics (possibly the place parents have the most impact on their child’s mathematics education).

A positive attitude about mathematics develops when children realize they are capably “doing” and using math every day.

We resist the idea that Miquon turns math into a game as a sort of equivalent to “sugar making the medicine go down.”  Just as we use rhyme and rhythm to support early language acquisition, when children are repeating sequences, building number bonds to ten, playing a dice race, and discovering patterns, they are enjoying the intrinsic pleasures that lead to a lifelong interest and strong foundation in mathematics.  Integrating mathematics into social studies and play requires time away from textbooks. Truly, the extra planning by teachers to involve math in every subject is well worth our children’s realization that mathematics not only helps solve problems more efficiently, it describes the world around us.

We hope parents will share the child’s stance of a curious and resourceful problem solver, because parents’ positive attitude and conversation about mathematics at home are a huge factor in their children’s learning and willingness to persevere.

Whether we are working with Number and Operations, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis and Probability, or Algebra (our area of focus at Math Night last week), Miquon teachers always use real-life experiences to make the mathematics relevant and accessible.

To this day, I could skillfully sing that song back to anyone who cared to listen.  Yet, despite my childhood memorization of the lyrics, unfortunately, I missed the tune’s real meaning.

At Miquon, our goal is that our children always have a meaning-centered experience across all curricula.  Including (and especially!) with math.

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