Extraordinary Lower School Opportunities
By Adele Paynter, Head of Lower School
At Country Day's Lower School, we've spent the past two years really working on ensuring that our math program is best in class for our children, and we can already see the difference in our children's approach to math! They are strong mathematical thinkers, flexible and effective problem solvers, and fluent fact solvers! Just last week I was in a 1st grade classroom, and the children were so adept at using "friendly numbers" to quickly and easily solve some difficult equations IN THEIR HEADS (ie: 27 + 34 is the same as 30 +30 + 1). Pretty cool!
Shifts We've Been Focusing On:
- Depth over breadth: We want to make sure our children have a rock-solid foundation of math concepts and skills in the Lower School, and so our program focuses on depth of understanding vs. breadth. When students have the opportunity to slow down and really develop strong number sense in the early years, there is no limit to how far they can push their mathematical thinking down the road! The example of using friendly numbers above is one way children demonstrate a strong understanding of numbers—they can compose/decompose them quickly and easily in order to solve operations.
- Teaching Mathematical Thinking and Argumentation: One of the coolest parts, to me, of our math program is its emphasis on having children explain their mathematical thinking and WHY they think the way they do. Rather than just emphasizing the final answer, teachers are continually prompting their children to explain, to prove, or to think of a different way to solve a problem. As they do this, you can see the sophistication of their ideas growing in just one class! In Ms. Harris' K room the other day, children were playing a game called "flash" where they showed with their fingers combinations of numbers that made 4. It was so much fun to watch them continuously push their thinking to show ANOTHER way of making 4 and to explain how they knew the combination was "4."
- Grounding ideas in concrete before moving to pictorial and abstract: Each new concept in our program (even at the older grades) is taught with this progression in mind. Students physically play around with the concept using manipulatives and hands-on materials. They then move towards more pictorial representations and later to algorithms. This ensures that—unlike me growing up!—kids have the larger concept in mind and are not ONLY memorizing formulas (though efficiency is also an important part of the program).
- Math Attitudes! We don't just teach kids math, we teach them all of the habits of mind and attitudes that go with being a successful mathematician—perseverance, confidence, flexibility, engagement, etc.
As a reluctant mathematician myself, this last piece is the most transformational for me. To this day, I still find myself getting that pit of anxiety in my stomach when I know there's a math problem in front of me, and both my confidence and common sense suddenly try to take flight.
"Math People" vs. "Non Math People"
But guess what? Study after study has shown that there's no such thing as "math people" and "non math people;" we all have the potential—through practice and good coaching—to sharpen our mathematical thinking and grasp tricky concepts. What gets in the way of us all accessing those skills is the messages that we send ourselves and our children about math. So, when we spread our math anxiety and say things we think are encouraging ("math is hard," "I was never good at math either," "that's okay. You've got more of an artist's mind"), we are actually doing the ONE THING that has a direct impact on our children's math skills. Instead, all of us math-phobes in the world need to STOP worrying about making mistakes, start embracing the challenge of a math problem in front of us, and tell our kiddos:
- "Math is exciting… and kind of fun!"
- "Mistakes are no big deal…they help us learn."
- "Like anything else in life, you get better at it by working hard."
- "There's no such thing as math people," and
- "Surprise! You're actually already doing math all the time anyway."
So, fellow Math-Phobes, let's stay on that road to recovery so our little ones approach math with confidence, perseverance, and (yes, it's possible!) real joy!