Two Things Parents Should Know About Math Instruction

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These days, math instruction looks a whole lot different then it did when I was in school. It’s a steep learning curve even for teachers. In my experience, one of the greatest sources of confusion for parents is math instruction. They have a very hard time assisting their child at home because the way it is taught is so vastly different. This is true for kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.

While I cannot give you an in-depth explanation of how each math standard is taught, I can highlight two major components of today’s math instruction, and hopefully this will help you to better understand how your child is learning math.

The greatest shift in teaching occurred after Common Core was introduced. Common Core is a highly debated set of standards. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I have personally supported Common Core and thought the standards were mostly appropriate and rigorous. Common Core is widespread, but is not adopted in all states. There are still a handful of states that do not use these standards. These new standards changed the way we teach and also made it much more challenging for parents to help out at home.

Here are two things you should know about current math instruction…

1. It’s Not Just About the Destination; It’s About the Journey

When I was a student, everything in math was about the answer. Most math instruction was centered on memorization, fluency, and procedures. We had monthly timed tests, and procedures to follow for multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, etc. This is the type of math instruction that most parents are accustomed to. However, today’s math instruction has a huge emphasis on conceptual understanding. Yes, teachers still work on procedural understanding and on fluency. The difference is that procedural understanding has become secondary to conceptual understanding. As a first grade teacher, we barely spent any time on procedural standards. Students needed to be fluent in addition and subtraction within 20 and needed to know their doubles facts. Almost every other math standard had a deep conceptual focus. Students are taught¬†many strategies for each standard (see below) and focus on number sense rather than one procedure to get to an answer quickly. Teachers focus on higher level questions where students need to be able to understand and explain why they are carrying out a particular strategy.

Addition Strategies
Here is an anchor chart from a first grade classroom in my previous school. Look how many strategies we teach!

Many parents in my school would send their kids to Kumon to help with math. Often, doing so made their child struggle more as Kumon focused on memorization and fluency and we simply did not.

If you want to better understand how your child is being taught and the conceptual basis for their learning, I would recommend reading the standards aligned with their instruction and snapping some pictures of anchor charts hanging up in the classroom!

2. Explain, Explain, Explain

Many times we would send home a math assessment and parents did not understand what their child got wrong. They had the correct answer and didn’t see the issue. Today’s math (and literacy) has a major focus on explaining one’s thinking. Students need to be able to explain how they came to the answer. Being able to explain your thinking is a higher-level skill and is very important in our current educational climate. See below for an example.

Comparing Numbers Place Value and Number Line
This was an anchor chart in my classroom. Students were working on comparing numbers. Notice that simply answering the question is not enough. Students needed to explain how they knew which number was greater or less. Here we are showing them two ways to do this: place value and a number line.

This goes back to the first point: conceptual understanding. Today’s educational standards want students to have a deep conceptual understanding of math and be able to clearly explain their thinking when solving math problems.

I know that math instruction looks quite different these days. The best thing you can do to help your child is to educate yourself. Even the states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards implement them in different ways. Research your state’s standards and check in with your child’s teacher to learn about how the content is being taught.¬†

Let me know in the comments if you have ever been confused with how content is taught in today’s schools!


Two Things Parents Should Know About Math Instruction

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An education blog created by Kim. A former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom. Useful tips and tricks from a teacher to parents.

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