Understanding Math: A Cultural Problem


All parents and teachers have one thing in common: we want our children to understand and be able to use math. Counting, multiplication, fractions, geometry — these topics are older than the pyramids.

So why is mathematical mastery so elusive?

The root problem is that we’re all graduates of the same system. The vast majority of us, including those with the power to shape reform, believe that if we can compute the answer, then we understand the concept; and if we can solve routine problems, then we have developed problem-solving skills.

Burt Furuta

The culture we grew up in, with all of its strengths and faults, shaped our experience and understanding of math, as we in turn shape the experience of our children.

Six Decades of Math Education

math on slateLike any human endeavor, American math education — the system I grew up in — suffers from a series of fads:

  • In the last part of the twentieth century, Reform Math focused on problem solving, discovery learning, and student-centered methods.
  • But Reform Math brought calculators into elementary classrooms and de-emphasized pencil-and-paper arithmetic, setting off a “Math War” with those who argued for a more traditional approach.
  • Now, policymakers in the U.S. are debating the Common Core State Standards initiative. These guidelines attempt to blend the best parts of reform and traditional mathematics, balancing emphasis on conceptual knowledge with development of procedural fluency.

Model Math Problems

The “Standards for Mathematical Practice” encourage us to make sense of math problems and persevere in solving them, to give explanations for our answers, and to listen to the reasoning of others‌—‌all of which are important aspects of mathematical understanding.

But the rigid way in which the Common Core standards have been imposed and the ever-increasing emphasis on standardized tests seem likely to sabotage any hope of peace in the Math Wars.

What Does It Mean to “Understand Math”?

Math-HomeworkThrough all the math education fads, however, one thing remains consistent: even before they reach the schoolhouse door, students are convinced that math is all about memorizing and following arbitrary rules.

Understanding math, according to popular culture‌—‌according to movie actors, TV comedians, politicians pushing “accountability,” and the aunt who quizzes you on your times tables at a family gathering‌—‌means knowing which procedures to apply so you can get the correct answers.

But when mathematicians talk about understanding math, they have something different in mind. To them, mathematics is all about ideas and the relationships between them, and understanding math means seeing the patterns in these relationships: how things are connected, how they work together, and how a single change can send ripples through the system.

Mathematics is the science of patterns. The mathematician seeks patterns in number, in space, in science, in computers, and in imagination. Theories emerge as patterns of patterns, and significance is measured by the degree to which patterns in one area link to patterns in other areas.

Lynn Arthur Steen

Understanding Math, Part 2: What Is Your Worldview? Coming soon…

CREDITS: “Thinking” photo (top) by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flicker (CC BY 2.0). “Math on a Slate” (middle) by Pranav via Flicker (CC BY 2.0). “I Can Model Problems” poster by Nicole Ricca via Teachers Pay Teachers. “Math Homework” photo (bottom) by tracy the astonishing via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

LPM-ebook-300This is the first post in my Understanding Math series, adapted from the expanded paperback edition of Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together and Enjoy It. Coming in early 2016 to your favorite online bookstore…

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Everyone Can Learn Math

Here’s a new video from Jo Boaler at YouCubed.org.

Boaler’s Four Key Research-Based Messages

There is a huge elephant standing in most math classrooms, it is the idea that only some students can do well in math. Students believe it, parents believe and teachers believe it. The myth that math is a gift that some students have and some do not, is one of the most damaging ideas that pervades education in the US and that stands in the way of students’ math achievement.

—Jo Boaler
Unlocking Children’s Math Potential

A Wealth of ResourcesBoosting Math screenshot

The YouCubed site is full of encouragement and help for families learning math.

— and plenty more!

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Citizen Maths: A Free Course to Build Adult Math Skills

Do you want to improve your grasp of math so you can help your children understand their homework? Did math pass you by at school, or have your skills grown rusty over the years? Do you find it hard to apply what you know to the real-life problems you need to solve now—‌like using spreadsheets, interpreting data, or assessing risks?

If so, then the free, online, work-at-your-own-pace Citizen Maths course may be just what you need. Instead of abstract routines, the course uses practical problems to help you grasp some “powerful ideas” in math and see how these ideas apply in work and in life.

Continue reading Citizen Maths: A Free Course to Build Adult Math Skills

Infinite Cake: Don Cohen’s Infinite Series for Kids

Strawberry Cream Cake

Math Concepts: division as equal sharing, naming fractions, adding fractions, infinitesimals, iteration, limits
Prerequisite: able to identify fractions as part of a whole

This is how I tell the story:

  • We have a cake to share, just the two of us. It’s not TOO big a cake, ‘cuz we don’t want to get sick. A 8 × 8 or 16 × 16 square on the graph paper should be just right. Can you cut the cake so we each get a fair share? Color in your part.

Bobby Flay German Chocolate Cake

  • How big is your piece compared to the whole, original cake?
  • But you know, I’m on a diet, and I just don’t think I can eat my whole piece. Half the cake is too much for me. Is it okay if I share my piece with you? How can we divide it evenly, so we each get a fair share? How big is your piece?
  • How much of the whole, original cake do you have now? How can you tell?
  • I keep thinking of my diet, and I really don’t want all my piece of cake. It looks good, but it’s still just a bit too big for me. Will you take half of it? How big is that piece?
  • Now how much of the whole, original cake do you have? How could we figure it out?
    [Teaching tip: Don’t make kids do the calculation on paper. In the early stages, they can visualize and count up the fourths or maybe the eighths. As the pieces get smaller, the easiest way to find the sum is what Cohen does in the video below‌—‌identify how much of the cake is left out.]
  • Even for being on a diet, I still don’t feel very hungry…

Continue reading Infinite Cake: Don Cohen’s Infinite Series for Kids

The Math Student’s Manifesto


[Feature photo above by Texas A&M University (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.]

Note to Readers: Please help me improve this list! Add your suggestions or additions in the comment section below…

What does it mean to think like a mathematician? From the very beginning of my education, I can do these things to some degree. And I am always learning to do them better.

(1) I can make sense of problems, and I never give up.

  • I always think about what a math problem means. I consider how the numbers are related, and I imagine what the answer might look like.
  • I remember similar problems I’ve done before. Or I make up similar problems with smaller numbers or simpler shapes, to see how they work.
  • I often use a drawing or sketch to help me think about a problem. Sometimes I even build a physical model of the situation.
  • I like to compare my approach to the problem with other people and hear how they did it differently.

Continue reading The Math Student’s Manifesto

Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

dividing sausages

[Feature photo is a screen shot from the video “the sausages sharing episode,” see below.]

Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

How in the world can 1/5 be the same as 1/10? Or 1/80 be the same as one whole thing? Such nonsense!

No, not nonsense. This is real-world common sense from a couple of boys faced with a problem just inside the edge of their ability — a problem that stretches them, but that they successfully solve, with a bit of gentle help on vocabulary.

Here’s the problem:

  • How can you divide eight sausages evenly among five people?

Think for a moment about how you (or your child) might solve this puzzle, and then watch the video below.

What Do You Notice?

Continue reading Fractions: 1/5 = 1/10 = 1/80 = 1?

Reblog: Solving Complex Story Problems

old warrior dragon

[Dragon photo above by monkeywingand treasure chest by Tom Praison via flickr.]

Dealing with Dragons

Over the years, some of my favorite blog posts have been the Word Problems from Literature, where I make up a story problem set in the world of one of our family’s favorite books and then show how to solve it with bar model diagrams. The following was my first bar diagram post, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether “one fourth was” or “one fourth were.” I’m still not sure I chose right.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:


Cimorene spent an afternoon cleaning and organizing the dragon’s treasure. One fourth of the items she sorted was jewelry. 60% of the remainder were potions, and the rest were magic swords. If there were 48 magic swords, how many pieces of treasure did she sort in all?

[Problem set in the world of Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Modified from a story problem in Singapore Primary Math 6B. Think about how you would solve it before reading further.]

How can we teach our students to solve complex, multi-step story problems? Depending on how one counts, the above problem would take four or five steps to solve, and it is relatively easy for a Singapore math word problem. One might approach it with algebra, writing an equation like:

x - \left[\frac{1}{4}x + 0.6\left(\frac{3}{4} \right)x  \right]  = 48

… or something of that sort. But this problem is for students who have not learned algebra yet. Instead, Singapore math teaches students to draw pictures (called bar models or math models or bar diagrams) that make the solution appear almost like magic. It is a trick well worth learning, no matter what math program you use …

[Click here to go read Solving Complex Story Problems.]

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