Monday, May 11, 2009

Ateneo Summer Institute

This is the second year I am teaching this course for early grades teachers (kindergarten to third grade). In today's session, we explore why we teach mathematics. We did a problem that also includes drills-and-practice based on subtraction. Typically subtraction algorithm is done in grades one to three all over the world. I hope the teachers were able to understand that if all the child is able to do is to do subtraction then we have failed. The teachers told me a a cheap calculator cost about 50 pesos retail, that's a little more than USD1. I am sure the wholesale price is even lower. The teachers agreed that a 50-peso calculator can do subtraction rather well. So, if a drill-and-practice exercise enable childrent o do subtraction perfectly then they are just as valuable as a 50-peso calculator. i tried to convey the message that helping children develop thinking and other human competencies are equally important, if not more improtant than developing the ability to perform the subtraction algorithm. A teacher said the activity took more time. I hope we will see that the time invested (50 minutes) is well-spent. In fact, I argue that this is necessary. Unless a task is an extended one, the thinking involved is not very deep and, hence, not significant.
In case you are not in the class today, the problem was to use one set of digit tiles (0 to 9) to make two 4-digit numbers such that the difference is as small as possible. In both classes, we had 25 as the smallest possible difference. The teachers were impressive and were able to make some connections - such as the thousands digits are consecutive. In the end, they found three possible solutions 4xxx - 3xxx = 25, 5xxx-4xxx = 25 and 6xxx - 5xxx = 25. Try it and let me know what other insights you manage to have.
A teacher asked how teachers can formulate such problems. A short answer is to attend courses like these as well as to lookt hem up in books and on the internet. A long answer is to change our beliefs what mathematics teaching is all about. Once that happens, all the tasks we create or choose will have features that allows students to develop good thinking abilities and habits.

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