There’s a new book out for mathematics teachers called What’s Right About Wrong Answers. Being a literacy person, and without yet reading this book (I know!), I immediately loved that title. The complementary roles of cautious accuracy and freewheeling exploration should be bound up in everything adults work to help children learn. That is certainly the case with both reading and math.
Interestingly, correct-answer questions are the easiest for us adults to use, though neither area of study is about getting more correct answers. Math and Reading are processes to be used to fully understand explicit patterns and relationships (most obviously seen in math, but clearly evident in reading) and how to handle the complexities of life (most clearly experienced in reading, but absolutely present in mathematics).
The need to know how many potatoes are in the average 5 pound bag involves more than just some observation and calculation. What makes this an actual problem (not just a chore) worth kids’ attention is the WHY we are asked that question in the first place. “Who cares about bags of spuds?” and “Why is bag size important?” Those questions are what make math and reading come alive for youngsters.
It’s when these problems are presented in child-real-world circumstances, for example a youngster helping her grandfather in running a fruit stand and wondering what size paper bags to stock for the various types of produce for sale, that the mathematical value of arithmetic can come clear. Without that relatable context, it’s just so much “stuff they make us do for school.”
Similarly, memorizing lists of site words, phonics elements, and disembodied vocabulary terms only barely qualifies as reading or language development at all. Learning such things is absolutely important of course, just like learning what 3 means and the significance of place value (e.g. 3 vs .03), but the most efficient way to learn such things is in the context of real-world-y math problems, kid-delightful books and person to person engaging conversations about either … or both!
So, the common impression of engagements in mathematics or reading as being circumstances where answers to uninteresting questions can be judged as unquestionably correct or wrong is just shallowness disguised as education. We must all, parents and teachers alike, get eye to eye with the brilliant kiddos that we aspire to teach and help them see the inarguable uniqueness in their math and reading experiences. We should be wary of lessons that start and stop with the tick of a clock and work to enter the flow of children’s all-day, seamless learning, helping them celebrate the power of mathematical thinking and igniting their personal explorations into the beauty of language and books.