Math Moment: What is this new math?

Lower School Math Specialist Iloire Nye shares insight into how families can empower their young mathematicians at home.
By Iloire Nye, LS Math Specialist

When I say math, you say, (insert the first word that comes to mind). 

Whatever comes to mind will surely be shaped by our individual math stories. What did it feel like to learn math in school? What felt good? What didn’t? My story was shaped by weekly timed multiplication quizzes in third grade. Our scores were publicly posted in the front of the room, and as soon as everyone got 100%, we earned an ice cream party. I will let you fill in the rest of the story, as I imagine many of you knowingly nodding along as you connect your experience to mine.

We have come a long way from those days as we have grown to understand math learning as far more expansive than arithmetic and speedy computation. Instead, our focus is on the work of true mathematicians — deep thinking, reasoning, finding patterns, and making connections. It is the way we make sense of the fundamental truths of the universe, and there is much beauty to be found in the study of mathematics from the earliest of ages onward. How different from the way many (dare I say most) of us learned math.

You may feel this difference most keenly when you sit down with your child to work on math homework. You may think, “What is this new math? How do I help my child when it looks so very different from how I learned?”  What I think is most critical in these moments is to have a loose road map on how to help your child all the while knowing that it is not your job to teach them how to get the correct answer or to challenge them with a harder problem. Rather, it is to guide and empower them to trust their unique processes. It is to nudge them to go deeper, to make connections, to seek patterns. Here are some questions I have used with my children whether they are struggling with a concept or find a problem quite simple:
  • What do you know about the problem?
  • How can you start?
  • What does this problem remind you of?
  • Tell me more about this problem.
  • What do the numbers represent?
  • What other problems have you solved that are similar to this problem?
  • Can you write another problem that is similar to this one?
  • Does this strategy always work? Can you find a time when it wouldn’t work?
  • How many ways can you solve this problem? Is one more efficient than the other? Why or why not?
  • What feels comfortable about this problem? Uncomfortable?
Finally, one of the most important things I say to my children as well as my students is, “What is the worst thing that could happen if you can’t solve this problem right now?” Usually, this results in an, “I don’t know. Nothing? I get it wrong?” Exactly. Your child may not be able to solve this problem yet. But, they will indeed be able to one day. Trust in the process and hold space for them to find their way.
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