Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Perseverance in mathematics

My math students have come a long way this year! At the beginning of the year, most of them had a hard time "staying in the struggle." They wanted easy answers and algorithms. Thinking about the "why" of mathematics and explaining personal problem solving approaches seemed like foreign concepts.

My students needed perseverance. It was my job to create the environment that would build it. It's taken all of the perseverance I have. I needed to make sure students knew it is okay to make mistakes. I had to tinker with assignment difficulty until I found a sweet spot where students were challenged, but not frustrated. I had to keep pushing and pushing my students and get them to embrace the idea that giving up is never an option.

I think my students have come around to the idea. I realized I needed to work on their parents, too. So I sent home this letter:

Dear parents and guardians of fantastic fifth graders,

Did you know that Colonel Sanders “Original Recipe” for chicken was rejected 1,009 times, Steven Spielberg was not accepted to film school until his fourth attempt, and 27 different publishers rejected the first book by Dr. Seuss?  Yet, all three of them became leaders in their fields.  They didn’t let failure stop them!

Last week, I shared information about the eight Mathematical Practice Standards.  As a teacher, it is my responsibility to incorporate these standards into everything we do in math class. As a human being, it is the first standard that I find myself dealing with everyday: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.  Professionally and personally all of us are faced with many problems that we need to sort out and solve.  And frequently we find that our first solution doesn’t work. Yet, whether the problem is big or small, we keep chipping away at it until we find a solution!

Our kids need to be comfortable struggling through problems and making multiple attempts to find a solution.  By now you have probably noticed that the math problems I send home take more than one step to solve.  Real-world problems are rarely solved in one step, and what we do in math class represents that.  This week, I would like you to support your child by letting him or her really think this problem over and use multiple strategies to find the right answer.  Feel free to remind your child how to perform any needed computation, but let your child own the problem and the solution. Learning to deal with a failed first attempt will help your child in the math classroom and beyond.

Thanks for reading,

-Jim Windisch

At our recent parent/teacher conferences, I talked about my new approach to math homework with many of my kids' parents. The overall reaction was positive, but many of them are having a hard time with perseverance at home. A few parents commented that they want to jump in and help by showing how to solve the problem with an algorithm. Others mentioned getting frustrated by the inefficient strategies they saw their kids using to solve the problem. I assured these parents that the important part of problem solving is making sense of the problem and persevering. Their children would adopt more efficient strategies as they become more comfortable with solving problems and manipulating numbers. And then I had the parents who were 100% behind this.  They talked about letting their kids figure it out independently and then listening to the explanation, questioning their children, and sometimes discussing multiple methods for solving the problem.

More than anything else, I want students to leave my class with perseverance. My kids who have support for building perseverance at home are there.  How do I get the rest there? Has someone discovered the magic formula? If you've discovered it, please share with me. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine... 

The facts about Sanders, Spielberg, and Seuss in my parent letter came from mental_floss Vol. 13, issue 1