January 25, 2018

Ted Talk: Math Class Needs a Makeover

I came across this TED Talk this week while looking for different homeschool resources and found it quite interesting. Dan Meyer discusses some of the key issues with many math classes across North America today. This Talk focuses on public school classrooms but it can be applied to many math textbooks on the homeschool market today; I think he hits on a lot of key points when it comes to how the education system is failing our kids when it comes to mathematics. He explains and demonstrates how confusing and manipulative the questions found in textbooks today are and how they aren’t engaging students at all! How can this be?

Meyers argues that today, many textbooks contain units that can be easily “passed” by learning how the textbook work; students don’t even need to know the basic concepts being taught! There is no depth to the questions or engagement from a student’s perspective and therefore no thought needed to solve the problems. Its all just manipulation of the same question and substituting in different numbers. Math has become a mindless activity where students just do it for the sake of completing the homework asked of them. Where is the fun in that? How are our kids learning anything from these basic and quite frankly, boring math textbooks? We are letting them breeze through a core subject in their education without really taking it in and understanding it as result of the material put in front of them!

Many students enter high school level math courses/curriculum with the following characteristics when it comes to learning new concepts each semester or year:

  1. Lack of initiative
  2. Lack of perseverance
  3. Lack of retention
  4. Aversion to word problems
  5. Eagerness for formulas

We live in a society that likes to live life in the fast lane; we want what we want, and we want it now. There is an entitlement to instant gratification that has been adopted as our new normal and unfortunately, this has spilled over into how our children learn math. They expect simple and quickly solvable problems, so they do it, get the grade and move on. Are they really learning anything this way though? We’ve talked previously how we use basic math concepts in our everyday life, often without even realizing it. Meyer’s begs the question of the audience: is there ever a problem(s) in life worth solving where you are given all the necessary information or a surplus of information right from the start? Obviously not. We must work away and the problems and often times find the answer through trial and error. We are doing a huge disservice to our kids if we are teaching our kids this way.

The question you may be asking at this point if you haven’t watched the video (you need to!) is how fix this then? How do we teach our kids mathematics in this day in age in a way that captivates their attention and helps them better understand the concepts? First, many of us have chosen to homeschool our kids and take their education into our own hands. Although this is a great start, is it enough? Choosing the right math curriculum is challenging and sometimes overwhelming when you don’t know what you’re looking for or it’s the right fit for your child. We need to develop the critical thinking skills in our kids in order for them to apply them to real-life problems. Why not include this in homeschool curriculum? Showing kids “real life” applications of concepts they are learning will not only make it easier for you to teach but will show the student the WHY behind what they’re doing. I have a student in one of our courses that doesn’t think they’ll need math for their career path and therefore, why is it important to learn? I think showing the applications of the concepts gives students motivation to learn it and less likely to just put in as much effort as it takes for a grade and call it a day.

Meyer’s thinks that for our math curriculum to be beneficial to students it needs to have 5 key aspects included in the lessons:

  1. Use multimedia
  2. Encourage student intuition
  3. Ask the shortest question you can
  4. Let students build the problem
  5. Be less helpful

Although some of these may sound like they won’t be helpful in teaching student’s new concepts they really are. I think all kids need to relearn what it’s like to struggle with a question. You can’t adequately grow your brain if you aren’t challenging it enough. You must work at the problem to get more comfortable with the concept and then find the answer. Meyer’s refers to David Milch who made many famous TV shows but swore off contemporary dramas for this very reason. If you are constantly flooding your brain with quick shows that present and solve problems in quick 20-minute or 40-minute shows it starts to blur the lines between reality and fiction. This is a great disadvantage to the modern-day students because they are constantly bombarded with this idea every day all day long. They expect quick resolution problems all the time in life. This just isn’t realistic. You won’t always have a “quick fix” formula that you can plug in all the information and get your answer; as a student, you have to put in the work into solving. This doesn’t mean that all students should struggle with math because it doesn’t have to be hard and overwhelming. As parents, this gives us the perfect opportunity to come up with new and creative ways to present questions and material to our kids to better their education.

Meyer’s goes through various sample questions to demonstrate how these questions being taught are not engaging at all and then provides an example of one he knows is different and has seen impressive results in the classroom with. The types of questions that successfully engaged his students were multi-layered questions with depth and visual components. He was able to break it down and present it to his class in a way that had them all thinking and wanting to contribute possible answers and solution. Even those that held back to let someone else who had the formula or answers were chiming in! It’s so rewarding to watch kids participate in the things they find challenging and engage in the topics to better their own understanding!

We can use all the technology we have today for our benefit. We have millions of resources at the click of a button for any topic that can be integrated into homeschooling curriculum; that’s the whole point of homeschooling right? You take control and have the freedom to be as creative as you want with teaching your kids the key subjects they need to succeed. There is no reason why we can teach engaging lessons each day to build students understanding using a variety of media outlets and resources. Pinterest, Netflix, YouTube are just a few of the great resources homeschoolers and public-school educators can use in the classroom today. Education is so much more than just a grade on a piece of paper and I think homeschooling is the perfect example of this. It’s in the simplest of terms a lifestyle. It’s not guaranteed to be an easy journey, but you get to set the standard for their education and guide them through the process.

With homeschooling statistics on the rise (over 60,000 families in Canada alone have decided to homeschool), we need to seriously consider how and what we are teaching our kids. Are we setting them up for the most successful future possible? Meyer’s himself says he is teaching the kids that will run the world by the time he retires. We need to take the time to properly train and teach our kids so that they can be the best leaders of tomorrow.