Demystifying Math

Demystifying Math

Alison Stern, 4th Grade Teacher

“Mathematics is not about numbers, equations, computations, or algorithms: it is about understanding.” William Paul Thurston

When I think about teaching math I get very excited. There are so many patterns, numbers, shapes, equations, and so much more to contemplate that I can’t wait to get to grips with it. But that is not the case for every student. Finding ways to help students understand and enjoy math is an important goal for any teacher.

In the Lower School, we carefully focus time and attention on mastering basics in math. This may seem laborious, but it is extremely important when you consider how each basic skill or process becomes an important building block in the larger arena of math. After all, if your house doesn’t have a secure foundation, it won’t be strong and stable; therefore, building strong foundations in our math knowledge and skills will allow us to make connections between them and build onwards and upwards into more complex work.

A phrase I often use with 4th graders is that I aim for them to “think like a mathematician, talk like a mathematician, and write like a mathematician.” Multi-sensory approaches have been proven time and time again to be successful methods of teaching in so many subjects and skills. This thinking, then, is applied in our math classes. As the children “think like a mathematician,” they are encouraged to ask and answer questions, sketch out diagrams, try out equations, and experiment with calculations. As they “talk like a mathematician,” they practice using important mathematical terms to describe their processes and understanding. As they “write like a mathematician,” they learn to communicate clearly on paper how they have chosen to solve a problem and why. 

Being able to manipulate math problems in this way allows children to seek deeper meaning and understanding in their work. If, like me, you learned algorithms at school with little or no explanation behind them, you might begin to appreciate the value of this approach when you consider the student who was excited to learn about how to calculate the area of a parallelogram. “I know how to do that!” he announced, and promptly showed me the equation that he would use to complete the calculation. My response was to ask him why that was the equation he needed to use, and he shook his head. We then proceeded to draw a rectangle and cut it out. We cut a right-angle triangle off one end, flipped it over, and placed it at the opposite end of the rectangle, creating a parallelogram that had two diagonal sides. From this, the same student was able to see that the same equation, area =​ base x height, would allow him to calculate the area of a regular rectangle or a parallelogram with diagonal sides. His face lit up with delight as he realized he now understood why he had to use this equation.

Our goal is for our work in math classes to bring your children joy and curiosity, along with a deeper understanding and a stronger foundation for their future work.