What's the Problem?Here is a scary statistic, up to 60% of our STEM (science, technology engineering, math) majors in college end up dropping out...because of math. There are lots of theries on why this is happening. They go from grade inflation, to students not receiving a good foundation. However, there is another theory that seems much more likely to me! That theory says that math is taught in the United States as a series of problems that have a specific method to reach the right answer. The goal is a perfect grade. That's not how life works! It's not how science works, and it certainly isn't how engeneering or technology work! Math is actually problem solving. A 100% on a test doesn't mean a student can figure out a real life problem that involves math.
Who's Succeeding?Kids who take part in math clubs and competitions learn how to solve peroblems they have never seen before. Instead of looking at math as something to do to get a perfect score, it's solving problems for the pure joy of finding the solution. That gives kids real pleasure, and a feeling of accomplishment. That's especially true when it takes a few days (weeks) to puzzle over a problem and finally find the solution. Back to the kids who were in math clubs and competitions, they seem to survive the change from high school to college math much better than kids who were at the top of their math class, but never took part in the clubs or competitions. It seems the "tyranny of 100%" caused these new freshmen to give up too easily when they didn't do well. The truth is, if a kid is getting 98% or 100% in math all of the time, it's too easy.
What Can Elementary Teachers Do?Math thinking takes time. The skills students need to solve complex problems, break them down into small parts and approach from many angles without getting frustrated takes time and practice to build. That has to start in the elementary grades.
There are tons of ways to give problems to kids that are real puzzlers, but a great way to start in second through fourth grade is with pictures. A fun way all kids love, is finding mistakes adults make. Sometimes it takes a lot of thinking to even realize there is a problem! Give your students one of these pictures before math class begins, and allow students to struggle with it. Some will get it right away, others will have to think. That's good! Ask students to write down their answers and keep them to themselves. Print out the picture, so you can keep it up all day. Some students will puzzle over it. That's good too. The next day, discuss the answer and how students came to solve the problem. That discussion helps students who struggle to learn stategies.