Random Comments About Learning Mathematics

I Googled “Math Quotes Story Problems” today and got this:

Story ProblemsAccessed at http://www.pinterest.com/pin/200339883394174796/. No, I don’t have a pinterest account. That is just where Google took me. Really.

I Googled story problems for a reason. I went to see a new doctor this morning because my old one either retired or went crazy. I’m not sure which. You know that new doctors ask a lot of questions. One she asked me was what I do for a living. Now, that is a loaded question. Normally when I tell people that I am the Elementary Mathematics Specialist at the Utah State Office of Education I get a lot of unwanted sympathy.

“Oh, I’m so sorry! I hate math.”
“Oooo, I never liked math. How do you do it?”
“Bummer, man.” – okay, so they would have said that in the 60’s but I’m old enough to remember it.

When I tell them I love what I do they can hardly believe it. They look at me really funny when I tell them they should give math a second chance.

Another reaction I get is some kind of math story. My new doctor this morning told me hers. She said that she was always really good at math in high school and that was tough. People made fun of her because of her math achievement and especially because she was a girl. That all seemed to be socially unacceptable. But she hung in there and took math all the way through calculus in high school and did very well.

Things changed in college, though. This was in the days before AP tests so she had to retake calculus. She thought it would be a breeze because she got A’s in it in high school. No sweat. However, every problem was a story problem! Every one of them! She wasn’t used to that. In high school she just had to do sets of 20 to 40 problems and then, maybe, one story problem. She had no idea how to interpret all these story problems and she was intimidated. So, she talked to her engineer dad. He just laughed and said, “Listen, dear. Life is a story problem.” To an engineer math is for solving problems. I’m sure they have very little use for sets of problems with no connection to reality.

Another story – this morning my wife told me she had read my post on Strategies in Addition and Subtraction. She said it made a lot of sense to her. She struggled with math in elementary school until she got a teacher in sixth grade who took a special interest in her and taught her ways of dealing with numbers and operations. She was still put in the low group in seventh grade math but she quickly found out that, because of what her sixth grade teacher taught her, she could figure out what to do pretty easily. She couldn’t understand why other people were having so much trouble with the math. She is sure that her sixth grade teacher taught her some strategies that made sense to her. Even today she does math in her own way and is very, very quick and accurate.

What is the moral of this story problem? We have to teach in context, in problem solving situations, in the real world or as close to it as we can get. Dan Meyer in his blog  http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ talked about Fake World contexts not long ago. You need to read what he said, but one quote that will stick with me for a long time is “You have to know what your students worship.” Meaning, of course, that in order to really dive into the mathematics and be fully involved with problems students have to want to solve them. The problems have to raise their curiosity and perplex them a little. What a great concept.

We also have to make sure our students understand the mathematics they are learning. That is vitally important, and it doesn’t matter whether they will be engineers, coders, research scientists, mathematicians on the cutting edge of some obscure but important specialization or just people trying to balance their checkbook. Although, if students understand mathematical concepts and are engaged in math because they really want to solve those story problems, we may actually have more scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians come out of our schools. That would be a great learning outcome.





About MathDavidUtah

Husband of 1 gorgeous woman. Father to four intelligent boys. Father in law to three. Grampy to 7 (Charlie, Meili, Camden, Grayson, Marick, Diem, Remi)! Ham radio callsign K7CMG. Educational Leadership Specialist at the Utah State Board of Education.
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2 Responses to Random Comments About Learning Mathematics

  1. Patricia Palmer says:

    Sorry, this is kind of a weird question, but your blog is a great resource for Utah Elementary Math and I’ve been enjoying reading through, do you know of any equivalent for Utah Language Arts, especially that addresses the common core? or even other Utah Core areas? As a graduate from a Utah teacher education program I enjoy reading all I can that’s specific to our state.
    Thanks again for all the great information!


    • MathDavidUtah says:

      Patricia, I am embarrassed that it took me over a month to respond to you. That is definitely rude, and I apologize. Christelle Estradea, our secondary English Language Arts specialist blogs here: http://my.uen.org/71005. Robert Austin, our Social Studies Specialist blogs here: http://my.uen.org/myuen/63552. As far as I know they are the only other specialists in Teaching and Learning who have blogs.

      I am really happy that you enjoy mine. I am writing a new post today. I’ll keep working on my colleagues.


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