Monday, December 3, 2012

It's Supposed to Make Sense

After another difficult session trying to teach math to the French-speaking African kids, I've realized there's a very basic problem. They don't get the concept that math is supposed to make sense. For them, it's like memorizing the Koran in Arabic if you don't speak Arabic. It's completely rote. Their goal is to memorize what the teacher did and try to spit it back to the teacher's satisfaction.

How do I get them to the point where they see it all fit together? I'm still trying to teach them about fractions. I've told them several times that any number divided by itself is 1, but I'm not at all confident that they can apply that consistently. I tried to explain to them that 1/2 is the same as 2/4, and I don't think they got that either.

Since they don't expect anything to make sense, I can't use the teaching technique that I'm used to, namely getting them solid on one concept and then helping them to tease out the next step. They don't know what it feels like to figure something out for themselves.

Next class, I'll bring a bunch of unifix cubes. That way, I can walk them through 1/2 versus 2/4, and if they can hold and see the cubes, maybe some light will dawn.


  1. I used to tutor math and really enjoyed it because of the opportunity to show some of these concepts. Unifix cubes are great. Any small objects like the cubes or pennies you can sort into groups for multiplication and division help. (If I have 10 pennies and want to put the pennies in 10 groups, how many pennies will be in each group?) If the kids are familiar with pizza or pie, that works really well for fractions. You could even give them circular pieces of paper in the same size and have one kid make a pizza with only two slices, one with four, one with eight, etc. And have them draw veggies on the slices for multiplying practice...

    That is, assuming the kids are proficient in English.

    The problem with all this is that these projects and examples take time, and it's really hard to fit them in when the teacher is expecting the kid to hand in a worksheet with 20 math problems solved.

  2. Thanks, Megan! I think I'll use your idea of the paper pizzas.

  3. PsychMom adds

    I have to chuckle. The latest drama about Math homework in our house was about EQUIVALENT FRACTIONS. You'd think she'd been asked about advanced calculus and derivatives, by the amount of agony displayed. Age Eleven, in Grade 6.

    When I could make myself heard over the groans and tossing of the body on the sofa multiple times, I asked, "If I give you 2/4th's of cherry pie or I give you 1/2 a cherry pie, which is bigger?"

    Well dah, Mom, they're the same!

    Well, then dah, 2/4's is the same as 1/2. They are EQUIVALENT FRACTIONS.

    OOOOOHHHHHHH...I get it. So 4/8's is the same as 2/4's and 1/2..

    The trouble was, now she had to do both sides of the page...all the same problems. "Give two equivalent fractions for each.......Give three equivalent fractions for each......Which of the following have no equivalent fractions......."

    Over and over and over again.

    And next week, she probably won't know what an equivalent fraction is. She'll know the concept but because she will get thrown by the term, she'll believe she doesn't know what equivalent fractions are, and she'll have a negative mindset. So really it's an English lesson she needs, not arithmetic.