Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Whole numbers, add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions & decimals

What is the essence of elementary mathematics?

Some say whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. These form the essence of what are currently called "Common Core" standards.

Teach these things and we'll be set, say some. Others insist we need to teach many more math concepts.

The experts argue over whether we should let kids discover how to do problem solving on their own (with a bit of guidance), or focus more on telling them how math works.

They argue whether elementary students need the ability to creatively apply mathematics to novel situations, as some college students and a few employees occasionally do. Or should we convey a few concepts so intensely that kids could do common math with their eyes closed?

We might be in a lot better shape than we are today! If kids could apply simple math to familiar situations with confidence, I'd be happy. But I don't make the rules, I just write curriculum.

In blog #1, 427 blogs ago, I said math was a language, "a system for encoding and decoding information so it can be shared ... a language of counting, measurement, shapes and calculation ... a language with precise definitions and specialized terms."

We don't all speak the same language today. Here are two incidents brought to my attention this week:
• My friend Jeff lamented the fact that his middle school music students didn't come to him with the ability of reading Roman Numerals. They need to know this system to understand universal key in music theory and to comprehend his musical notation.
• My wife Laurie bemoaned the inability of her elementary students to read an analog watch or clock. They don't know the rotation between two markers (1/12th of a circle) represents 5 minutes. They can't time activities on the playground with her stopwatches. They don't understand the term clockwise, so they don't know which way to turn.
These subjects are traditionally taught in math class. They are part of numerical literacy. They are two of the reasons our current curriculum is considered a mile wide and an inch deep. Which isn't always bad.

If you asked me, I'd say give up something else, not Roman numerals or reading a clock.

But no one asked me. So in a huff, I hereby offer you a Roman numeral, counter-clockwise clock so you can time your progress in learning to read the chord progression chart.