Why I love helping my kids with their math homework – and you should, too

I got in an argument on Facebook last night about, of all things, fourth-grade math.  (Specifically, this problem, which has been passed around social media as the latest example of what’s wrong with education.)

My fourth-grader’s math homework regularly has me baffled. Not because I don’t know the answers to the questions; I can add and subtract and multiply and divide with the best of them. It has baffled me because I often don’t understand the process she uses to get the answers.

Based on what I see on Facebook (and the news and Twitter), I’m not alone:

“This new math makes no sense.”
“I can’t believe my kids have to learn this.”
“This isn’t how I learned it, and I got As in math so my way must be right!”
“Why do we have to complicate simple arithmetic?”
“This is so stupid/ridiculous/unnecessary!”

But my issue here isn’t about new math vs. old math; this isn’t a Common Core good/bad question. I’m purposefully leaving Common Core and assessments out of this. I’m talking about grit and learning and life. What do we do when we encounter something we don’t immediately understand? And how are we sharing that with our kids?

Unfortunately, at least when it comes to math, it seems like a lot of people declare the unknown wrong and then rail against it on Facebook. Maybe part of the reason kids are frustrated by math is because parents are frustrated? (You know how kids pick up on mom and dad fighting even when mom and dad say they never fight in front of the kids?)

My house/family/parenting certainly isn’t a model people would want to follow for many things, but I think this is one place where I’m doing it right (simply by not declaring anything “right”):

  • 1. Oh, that’s different than the way I would have done it. Can you explain it to me?
  • 2. I still don’t really understand. Let me see what I can find on YouTube/Google to help.
  • 3. Oh! I get it now! How exciting to learn something new! We should all start sharing a new thing we’ve learned each evening during dinner. Wouldn’t that be fun? (kids roll eyes)
  • 4. Do you need help? Should we compare our different methods and discuss why they reach the same answer?
  • 5. NOW I head off to Facebook — where maybe I can use my new insight to help some other parent!

The first time I saw partial quotient / forgiveness method division, I didn’t know why on earth my daughter was putting numbers in all the wrong places (on the RIGHT side of the dividend?!). But after watching a video, I added another tool to my own math toolbox — and this new method has become my go-to.

It isn’t like I’m some math genius. But because I didn’t discredit the different or give up on the difficult, I learned something new and useful. (That in itself may be the biggest lesson “new math” can teach us all.)

This morning in the car on the way to school my daughter offered to teach her younger brother complex multiplication over the weekend (to keep him from being bored while he’s on a forced technology hiatus). She wondered aloud how she’d teach him the partial products method compared to the standard algorithm method compared to the lattice method. (This was before I even told her about my Facebook discussion!) I reminisced with her about how I started her fourth-grade school year knowing only the standard algorithm — but now I know them all, too! — and I asked her how she chooses which one to use. “It depends if I’m doing it in my head or on paper,  how big the numbers are, whether they’re round numbers or close to round numbers…” she said.

Aha! So there’s more than one way to solve a problem! And the options don’t have to be black/white right/wrong? And problem-solving isn’t just getting the answer, but thinking about the problem enough to determine the best way to solve it.

While this post may seem like a departure from my normal topics, I’d make the case that it’s not. This is one of those times when life, work, parenting, marketing and fourth-grade math all come together. I’m fortunate to work in a company and with a group of people where “That’s different” is positive and “But we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t win any arguments. And to be creating a community in My Big Campus where questioning and collaborating is the norm. And to always have the opportunity to learn new things and stretch my own understanding of the world.

I think we could all learn something from fourth-grade math:

It’s ok to be frustrated.
It’s ok to not know the answer right away.
Don’t give up.
Always be learning.
Always be teaching.
There are many ways to solve a problem.
New doesn’t mean bad.

Because if we are teaching our kids that anything that doesn’t make immediate sense is wrong or that anything that looks different is wrong, then we’re in trouble. And not just in regards to math.

  • Allie says:

    As a high school Biology teacher, I SERIOUSLY appreciate your parenting stance on this. So much of what I “teach” is meant to go beyond memorization of biology content but to teach students HOW to learn, investigate, be inquisitive, and solve problems. So many of today’s students lack patience and perseverance and will give up if the answer isn’t immediately available or given to them. My hope is that society (schools, parents, students) begin to appreciate the importance of the PROCESS over the “right” answer. It’s so much more valuable in life. So thanks for doing your part!

  • Denise Contella says:

    Interesting and valid points . . . and, of course, extremely well written. All kids should have a parent like you.

  • Merleen Johnson says:

    I talk to my kids about grit all the time these days–how it applies to their athletics, academics, and life. What you’ve described is great modeling for our students. Thank you for the reminder of how we can encourage grit in our responses to change and difficulty.

  • judyatpop says:

    As we enter another exciting school year, I plan to use your blog about math as the focus for helping our teachers incorporate “technology” into their classrooms. We are constantly looking for ways to teach kids to think, yet we, as educators, prefer to stay with what we know. I realize this is a generalization, but still fitting in some classrooms. Thank you for your spot-on, positive approach to learning to think, not just learning to do math!

    • Amy Bennett says:

      Thank you for the comment, Judy! Change is hard and new things can be scary — I get that. But if we want to make our kids resilient and open-minded thinkers (which I believe we do) then we as parents and teachers and communities need to model that.

      I got a lot of comments about this on my own Facebook page from parents who had just never thought about it that way before. It might be worth sharing the concept with your parents as well, before the “that’s not the way I learned it therefore it’s not valuable” thinking runs rampant.

      We’re always learning, aren’t we? :)

      Have a wonderful new school year!

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