The “Math Is Only Computation” Belief

This past week I attended the NCTM Regional Conference held in St Louis, MO.  At the conference, one of the sessions I attended was by Rita Barger from the University of Missouri-Kansas City about commons myths about learning and succeeding in math.  This series of 5 posts will share what I learned from the session.

What is it?

The “math is only computation” belief is the belief that all math is formulas and just working through numbers.  In this belief, it’s safe to say you also believe calculators can solve nearly every problem.  To be completely honest, I bought into this belief until approximately a year ago.  I didn’t even know “other” math even existed.

What causes it?

Our testing methods lead give this belief life.  Our assessments primarily consist of solving problems that involve our students to work their way through questions.  Our homework is typically very similar.  We have failed to show our students that math is more than this.  How often do we take a step back and talk about the logic and thinking processes involved in math?  Not nearly enough.  To be fair, our traditional curricula hasn’t really allowed much breathing room for such conversations.

There have been many times where I have heard people, other teachers included, say they love math because it’s so “black and white” (I’m sure just as many people hate math, by that same train of thought). You either get it right, or you get it wrong.  All of the math I recall taking in school fit under this category. In a math assessment class I took last year, we discussed that reading skills and pattern recognition are the best predictors of success in mathematics.  I don’t think we help students with either of these nearly enough.

When all of the math our students see is computation based, why would they have any reason to think math is ever any different?

What does it look like?

Students may not see the value in non-computational math.  If you choose to do brainteasers with your students, they may enjoy them, but not see the point in doing them.  The few brain teasers I have done with my students, have ended with: “Now let’s get back to real math”.   Our students don’t see that skills like recognizing patterns and developing game strategy is considered math.  I wonder, if we began to use more this kind of math in our classes, if students would start enjoying math class more.

What can we do about it?

Rita talked about having a game day every now and then in her math classes.  These days would encourage problem solving and building strategies that would give you the best chance at being successful in the games.  She mentioned the game of Nim, which I have never seen before but I am interested in trying to play it with someone as soon as I get the opportunity.

Using sequences or analogies that don’t use numbers in them may allow students to start looking at math as not only computational.  We should encourage our students to look for patterns in absolutely everything.  It could very well be the most valuable thing we teach students in math, but I think it is often overlooked.

It might be valuable to discuss what real mathematicians do.  You’re students might be surprised to find out that they don’t just show up work and get given a sheet of problems to solve for the day.  Students seem to know very little about math beyond high school.

Image from FlickrAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by ZeRo`SKiLL

Five unhealthy beliefs in math that exist today are:


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