What if all students ever did in Language Arts was read and write individual words?
Every day, they’d read word lists and complete spelling dictations. Sometimes, they might put the words into simple sentences—but not before their teachers show them in exactly what order they should go.
The main purpose of this class, students are told, is to read and write words accurately and quickly with no mistakes. There are no stories to explore, no predictions to make, certainly no room for creativity or alternative points of view. No one ever talks about fostering a love of reading and writing.
What would our students think about reading and writing if this was their only experience with these subjects? Would they see reading as a series of rote tasks, unconnected and without deeper meaning?
Sounds bleak, right?
Remember how you learned math?
If I cast my mind back to math class in the early 90s, I remember a lot of worksheets.
First, the teacher stood in front of the chalkboard and told us exactly how to solve the problem type for the day.
Then we worked independently and quietly to answer every question on the worksheet. If we got an answer wrong, we had to go back and find where we missed a step.
Finally, when we got to the word problem at the bottom of the page, we found the numbers and applied the same steps.
Even now, with more manipulatives and group work, the focus of math class remains on speed and procedure over connection and understanding.
Students are taught the steps to solve a specific type of problem and then apply those steps to a workbook page.
The word problem remains, only this time students underline or circle the numbers before plugging them in.
Discussions and problem-solving are still tightly controlled by the teacher. Struggling students are re-taught the steps if they don’t get them the first time.
Even if students master solving one type of problem, any variation leaves them unsure of how to proceed. “I didn’t learn how to do that,” they say.
We need better math tasks
Practicing decoding and spelling individual words is a part of learning to read and write, just as learning to perform operations like addition and subtraction is a part of math. The biggest difference between our dynamic literature blocks and our static math classes isn’t the skills at the core of the tasks, but the nature of the tasks themselves.
We trust students to read novels, make annotations and predictions, argue what the themes are and maybe even write a paragraph persuading others to read it.
So why don’t we trust them to solve relatable and rich math problems without giving them “the steps” first? Where are the math group discussions and the authentic math projects?
Remember Bloom’s Taxonomy? Our students deserve high-order thinking tasks in math, too.
By seeking out complex math challenges, we can increase student engagement and deepen understanding.
Look at this rich math task from Let’s Talk Math, a supplementary resource designed to engage students in authentic listening, speaking, reading, and writing opportunities. Each word problem in this resource helps students understand, discuss, reflect, and write about how they solved complex problems with their peers.
Instead of the teacher laying out exactly how to solve a problem, students are encouraged to come up with their own strategies and explain their thinking.
Rich math tasks like this foster a classroom that’s humming with excitement and raised hands. Much like how teachers facilitate book group discussions, they can also facilitate math task discussions.
We have the power to make math class more meaningful and effective.
Students can build a deeper understanding of mathematics while learning operations, just as our Language Arts students learn to decode and analyze books. The change starts with better math tasks.