Thursday, April 28, 2016

When is Math More Than Math?

It's not really a trick question. Math is always more than math. Because it's also reading, problem solving, creative thinking, and yes, computational thinking.

Last week I was working with some high school students who were working on some test review problems. As an aside, what is with these people who are writing horrible test and test review questions? Do they have to go through some special training to learn how to write questions that only reinforce students' belief that math has no relevance to their lives? Okay, I'm stepping away from the rant.

Anyway, I was working with students who were working on some math problems. They sighed as they read the first problem. Yes, it was a stupid question so they were immediately frustrated by the stupidity of the question. So I told them, "Yes, the problem is stupid but the math is not, so let's break it down." Computational thinking.

Sure, this is a skill we try to teach all students. How to figure how what is relevant and what is not. How to read between the lines to figure out what is being asked of them. How to figure out when to add, subtract, multiple, or divide. How to make connections between the domain-specific language and other vocabulary. Yea, this is a lot.

So we backed up to review the table and the words in the problem. That's when I had an "Aha!" moment. They didn't know how to read the table. They didn't understand the relationship between the rows and the columns or what each represented. So we backed up a bit more.

Then I drew bad pictures to represent what the problem was asking them to do. Then they started drawing pictures because they were still struggling to figure out the very simple math they were being asked to do. And then, as we working on the second row, one student noticed the pattern. That fast she saw it and filled out the rest of the table without doing the math. She was exasperated when I asked her to explain how she knew what to do, but then she saw how excited I was that she'd discovered this thing and I wanted her to explain it to her friends, in Spanish if that was easier. Heads nodded.

Okay, back to the table so we can figure out the next part of the problem. "Miss, what's the point?"

Ahh, the enduring question. The wrong answer was so they could pass the standardized test. Then I asked if any of them worked in retail. Heads nodded accompanied by groaning. I asked how many of them had to do inventory. More groaning and nodding. So we spent a few minutes talking about why stores do inventory and how inventory data can influence if they stock more blue shirts than green ones. They shrugged.

"What happens if the store orders too many green shirts when people really wanted blue ones?"

"The store has to put those green shirts on sale."

"Right. Which means they might not make back the money they spent which means they might not make a profit or which means they might not have enough money to pay you."

Now I had their attention and now we could talk about how creating a table to graph actual sales is important. If only the math test prep people created questions that connected to what kids are doing and learning in real life and the hard way. Maybe then the kids would see how math matters.

But let's get back to when math is more than math because math is more than math because, as I said, it's reading, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and more. And it makes me laugh and annoyed when many of us say we're not "math people." I'm guilty of it myself but the reality is that math is part of much of what I do, in work or otherwise. Every. Single. Day.

I like math. I don't love math and I have no desire to understand higher level mathematics like trigonometry and such but I know it has a purpose and I'm grateful for those who like it, love it, do it.

When I do some research on how we see math, I'm dismayed. We have created a culture to think math is some onerous "other" loved only by math nerds. We talk with some condescension or disparagement, depending on our point of view, about math vocabulary as though art, music, dance, and architecture, among many others, don't have their own vocabulary. We talk about math literacy (and science literacy) as though it's too hard for kids. But if kids can learn how read sheet music--and not just the notes, they can learn operational symbols. If kids can learn adagio, they can learn inequalities. If kids can learn the language of music and dance, they can learn the language of math. We have to learn how to teach it as though it's not a chore, but part of a larger movement of a fantastic symphony of this thing we call life. And that from an English major who became a computer programmer/systems analyst and is a full-on tech geek.

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