Did you know that there is not a “math gene” that makes us good at math? If you haven’t read this yet: Why Do Americans Stink at Math? I would highly suggest taking the time to read. The long and short of it, is that during the industrial revolution, we took the fast track and tried to teach math the fastest way possible. We taught shortcuts instead of conceptual understanding. This method of teaching allowed our students to go directly from their education into a factory job, but it did a great disservice to a generation. This is why people believe that they are “bad at math”.
The world has changed and we can no longer do this to our students, but according to the article above we still are. Despite many attempts at changing our math practices, we still find the majority of U.S. teachers using traditional methods. Of students attending 2 year colleges, 60% of them are placed in remedial math classes, and only 25% of those students pass those classes! (Silva & White, 2013)
I would strongly recommend that you watch this video by Jo Boaler, of Stanford University. It is 20 minutes long, so if you can’t watch it all, try the first 8 minutes. In it she talks about how we need to make math a learning subject (exploratory, messy, open ended and challenging), not a performance based subject (math is only about answering questions correctly).
To return math to being a learning subject, we can use rich open ended tasks, inquiry activities, real world projects and problems that encourage math talk and discourse! Please check out my free Reasoning Puzzle Set to try out an activity that will really get your students thinking and talking and most importantly, learning at high levels.
These are most appropriate for 3 and 4th graders, but even could be beneficial for fifth graders that are not used to thinking this way! If you end up using them, I’d love to hear how it goes.