Teachers Helping Parents With Modern Mathematics
Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Number Sense: Helping Parents Understand Today’s Math Education

By Monica Fuglei

I heard whispers about “new math” before my children even started school. Angry parents vented about how hard it was to help their children with math homework and wondered why teachers assigned harder problems with longer, more complicated steps in place of the arithmetic that used to provide answers.

Recently, as I witnessed my daughter’s classmates struggle with double-digit partial products mathematics, I was in awe of her fifth grade class’s ability to be creative with numbers, have a sense for how they acted together, and seek solutions when they weren’t able to recall information directly. Algebraic thinking is a foundational principle of modern math education: Students engage in critical thinking about mathematics in ways they never have before.

Critical thinking in the math classroom can be uncomfortable new territory

While we’d like to think something as simple as math wouldn’t change very much, modern math education is different. Changes in the way math is taught reflect changes in society’s needs; simple calculation is no longer the main goal. The new goal of math is sophisticated thinking, which means that students must strive to understand how and why mathematical operations work so that their knowledge can be applied outside of the classroom.

Math based in critical thinking can be uncomfortable new territory for parents who grew up with multiplication tables. Some parenting websites mistake the pedagogical underpinnings of modern math as an attempt to be “more exciting,” and social media is filled with images that opponents of Common Core State Standards use as examples of illogical, needlessly complicated “new math.” For many math teachers, the challenge is to articulate the intersection of math and critical thinking to their students’ parents.

Helping parents understand the hows and whys of modern math

The shift from teaching math as a series of calculations to teaching math as a creative exploration of patterns and structures  is significant, but when homework turns from arithmetic worksheets to “Explain your answer and show your work in three different ways,” it can be especially difficult for parents to ascertain the goal of the exercise.

It is essential to communicate to parents the “why” of math changes in addition to the “how,” and the underlying skills that students are supposed to glean from assignments. For example, taking time to explain multiple techniques for solving a problem can deepen parents’ understanding of the processes taught in modern math classes.

With the increased popularity of the flipped classroom model, both parents and students can access a variety of online math tutorials. Teachers can also make videos of their own lectures available to parents. If teachers can help parents understand the pedagogy behind modern math instruction, they may approach their children’s complex assignments with less frustration.

How one teacher illustrates math-based critical thinking

A recent post on Momastery.com describes one parent’s meaningful experience getting math help from a teacher. In “Share This With All The Schools, Please,” the author discusses meeting her son’s teacher after school to gain an understanding of modern mathematics. After the tutoring, the teacher described the processes she used to ensure that her students felt socially connected to one another and to prevent bullying. The teacher’s process was based in algebraic thinking — in math.

Rather than a simple series of calculations, math becomes the connection between each student in the classroom. This sort of critical thinking and creativity is a skill that has been traditionally associated with other subjects, and employing it while figuring out long division seems foreign and weird because, for many parents, it is foreign and weird. If teachers can explain the reasons for the shift from rote memorization to number sense, parents might more freely embrace the future of math learning.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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