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February 07
 This Year's Focus

This year at Colonel J. Fred Scott School, we are focusing our student and staff learning on mathematics.  In order to improve our student’s mathematical understanding and skills, all our staff professional development will be focused on improving teaching math and finding ways to better engage our students towards deeper mathematical learning.

In the news recently, there has been some public debate about how math is taught in our schools.  Many people in the public would like a more “back to the basics” approach to teaching math.  You may have heard the expression “discovery math.” This is a math approach where students ‘discover’ math concepts on their own and aren’t directly taught.  Some parents might think that “discovery math” is our approach to teaching math and we don’t teach the math facts anymore in Alberta schools.  This is not true and I would like to take a moment to help parents understand how math instruction works at CJFS and most other schools in Alberta.

Much has changed over the years with regards to how math is taught in Alberta schools. Historically, mathematical teaching was focused on learning the basics of computation, memorizing facts and learning the ‘proper’ way to solve math equations. We now have current research on how the brain works and how children learn, and a fundamental shift about learning has occurred. Instead of only teaching skill based, procedural math, now we also focus on conceptual understanding, using multiple strategies, solving problems efficiently, and most importantly focusing on the skills and concepts that build success in each child. I will explain each of these concepts in further detail below.

Conceptual Understanding:

In the past, teachers focused only on the procedures or the “how to” in math. Whereas now, we focus on the deeper understanding of math.   For example, when teaching the concept of division, students are expected to understand how division works, not just knowing the facts or knowing how to do long division (the ‘procedural’ math).  Teachers now explore real life situations where people would use division to solve problems.  We then take these problems and together with students, figure out how to solve them. Students would use different ways to solve the problems, use manipulatives, explain their thinking out loud, and work with other students to solve the problems together.  In other words, students experience the concept of division in many different real and meaningful ways so that there is a deeper understanding of how division really works.

Using Multiple Strategies to Solve Math Problems:

Research has shown that students do not all learn the same way or at the same time. Some students strengths are more ‘hands on’, others learn best working with others, some learn best by themselves, others learn creatively, and some logically. So, if students learn differently, then they will naturally understand math differently and thus solve math problems differently.  Continuing with the division example, students who think more logically would benefit from using ‘long division’ when confronted with a division problem. But to another student who thinks more creatively, the procedure of long division might be confusing and he/she might draw, use blocks or invent their own method of dividing.  Nowadays, we teach different strategies.  Overall, students who solve problems using their own strengths and strategies are much more successful.

Solving Problems more Efficiently:

Students learn math at different speeds. Not all students in a classroom will have the same mathematical understandings and skills at the same time. As such, some students will be very quick to solve problems and others will not.  For the students who take more time to solve math problems, it is quite often because the student continues to rely on a strategy that they learned in earlier grades and don’t know a strategy that would be much more efficient. Lets’ use a grade 3 example: when students add 5+7=12, some students would just know the answer, some would add 5 + 5= 10, then 10+2 =12, some would ‘add up’ by starting with 7 and then counting up five more to 12 and others would put together 5 manipulatives and 7 manipulatives and then count them all to 12. It is clear that the students have an understanding of addition and for the student who was relying on using manipulatives, teachers would help the student move on to a new more efficient math strategy.

Teaching Math Skills that Build Success with each child:

In the elementary grades, mathematical learning is very connected to mathematical confidence. Confident math students are usually successful math students. For students who come to school without confidence in math, they are often behind in their mathematical understanding and trying to catch up to their peers.  We expect teachers to build success and confidence in students at their level. So, in the example of the grade 3 students adding 5+7, we would teach the student who already knew the answer differently than we would teach the student who was still counting the manipulatives. This way, both students are working at a level where they can be successful.

In conclusion, mathematical learning is more than learning the facts and skills. In today’s schools, we must teach mathematical understanding through engaging math problems.  The math class now does not always have kids quietly working at their desk, but can have kids solving problems together, explaining their learning out loud and defending their understandings with each other.  Math class can now be exciting, interesting, and a challenging place to learn!!