Speaking of Math …

“Why do I have to learn this?” many young students ask when faced with various math problems. “When will I ever use it?”

According to research, not only do teachers need to help students understand the relevance of math, but the way teachers answer specific questions about why they use certain procedures to solve problems can make the difference between a child’s success and failure in math, and in his or her overall educational achievement.

At this week’s Alabama State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting, Steve Ricks, head of the Alabama Math, Science Technology Initiative (AMSTI), addressed the issue of how mathematical understanding in the early years — specifically fractions and division — has an impact on high school math achievement.

Research from a 2007 study found that early math skills are a stronger predictor of future reading skills than early reading skills. Another study by R.S. Siegler found that understanding fractions and knowledge of whole-number division by age 10-12 strongly predicts a student’s overall achievement in most high school math courses, including algebra.

Truly understanding fractions and whole number division, said Ricks, is the key to helping prepare students for more complicated math courses. He explained that currently teachers in elementary grades have trouble answering that question. So AMSTI is focused on efforts to improve this understanding through professional development and better preparation for teachers in colleges of education.

“We need to be sure this becomes a big part of teacher prep in our colleges,” said Ricks. “And we feel that we can do this through the new partnership (with the Dept. of Postsecondary Education).”

Ricks gave the example of how American teachers typically answer the question, “why,” with the response “because it’s the right way to do the problem.” He explained that without a deeper understanding of why certain methods are used in solving an arithmetic problem, students cannot adequately retain the knowledge to apply the concept in more advanced math. The research shows that students “have a lot of difficulty remembering rote information.”

In the study, East Asian teachers answered the “why” question differently, giving two to three legitimate and understandable reasons. Students in many Asian countries have consistently outperformed U.S. students in math and science, according to Ricks.

AMSTI has developed the “Alabama Insight” online tool to help provide support and information to Alabama teachers. It is intended to help teachers develop a better way to teach fractions for student understanding, and a better understanding of fraction concepts and principles so they can give more meaningful explanations to their students.

State Superintendent Tommy Bice commented to the SBOE that Alabama Insight was recently unveiled to teachers, and their response was “elation.” The online program allows teachers to search college- and career-ready standards for descriptions of concepts, evidence to look for in the classroom that reflects student understanding of the concepts, and the vocabulary that teachers can use to provide clearer understanding.

Click here to read more about AMSTI, an initiative for improving math and science education in Alabama.