River Stones

A school support person sat with me in the school’s staff room today and told me her math woes. Her daughter is her 3rd and youngest to attend the school we were sitting in – a 4th grader whom she deemed  “bad at math.” Lately I’ve been reading Mathematical Mindsets and Building A Better Teacher, both of which speak to the idea that all students can be good at math. In Japan you are rewarded not on your potential, nor ability, but rather your effort. It is a place where they believe that anyone can do math if taught all of the progressive steps properly. Here, we believe that if a child falls behind making “grade level” math unapproachable, then that child is “bad” at math. There are so many assumptions which we believe to be true.

This mom has worked at the school for over a decade: assisting in classrooms, working as yard duty, monitoring the cafeteria. She knows the teachers (the least veteran of whom has 14 years under her belt). She confided that her daughter can’t seem to memorize her multiplication facts and described the anxiety this is causing in her daughter as well as the struggle it is causing at home.

At some point our education system came to some conclusion that we needed to teach math the fastest way possible and that sending students home to memorize facts was faster than teaching that multiplication actually means something. I’ll save this for another blog post but here we see the result of our paradigm. A student is turning away from learning rather than falling more deeply into it.

So I spoke to this. I empathized that it’s hard to teach multiplication when foundational skills are lacking. Exasperated, she responded, “Exactly!” And then she likened math to a river with each missed learning opportunity a stone that forms a wave in the water. This stone grows until it is blocking the river from flowing freely. Over time, the blockage becomes a full fledged dam and learning has ceased.

What a beautiful metaphor for a concept that most teachers would agree with. But look at our teaching. When teachers think about having to teach skills from grade levels previous in order to unblock those obstructions our frustrations rise. Why do we feel it’s not our job to lift those boulders out of the river? Why don’t our instructional materials provide resources to move boulders? Yes, some previous teacher plopped a big boulder right in the middle of the river and it may take a team to lift it out if it’s big. There may be fragments remaining that need sifting. But it IS still our job. And no child is “bad” at math, maybe they just haven’t had a teacher who found a way to unearth that misunderstanding. Maybe that teacher could be you…

If you have book recommendations like those above, please mention them in the comments!


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