Fourth grade math teacher Austin Applegate does more than teach students the foundational skills of multiplication and division – he equips them with the tools to form a conceptual understanding of math. By introducing his students to different methods of problem-solving, he allows students to build resilience and flexibility, and ultimately become confident mathematicians.
Math fluency is not just the ability to know facts; it's also about being creative and able to look for different kinds of solutions. You can show students a procedure and have them practice it enough so that they get it right nine out of ten times, but math is so much more than that – it’s understanding why you're doing what you're doing.
We as a culture equate being good at math with being fast at it. But if you don't have an understanding of what you're doing, at a certain point you'll hit mathematics that you can't do because you don’t have a conceptual knowledge of why what you're doing works. Maybe you are someone who is a lightning-fast calculator and can do all the questions correctly, but can you explain what you're doing? Sometimes that's hard for kids, but as a teacher, if you put them in this position it can often lead to a deeper understanding.
The fixed mindset that you're either a math person or not isn’t true at all, but people are fed that message at a young age. The reality of humans is if you put enough time and effort into anything, you can achieve a high level of understanding and proficiency. You might not have the right genetic makeup to be an elite athlete, but anyone can train to run a marathon.
My goal has always been to make sure that every single learner finds the tools to master the material we’re studying in class. When I was taught, we were told "do it this way" without understanding why it worked. Math has traditionally been the kind of subject that’s top-down; you have to do what the teacher says. That model – where I’m the holder of knowledge that I give to the student – seems old fashioned to me. Math is not a subject where there’s a single toolbox that we all use in the same way.
When kids tell me something is hard, sometimes I'll push back and say, “It’s just new. You haven't done it enough to really know if it's hard or not." The idea of viewing struggle as a positive is tough to get kids to buy into initially, so I try to be consistent in delivering that message. The journey of getting through struggle is going to be way more powerful than the thing that you were able to do the first time with no effort.
Teacher Talks is a series spotlighting the educators of Calhoun and their approach to progressive education.