It is 9:30 pm. A sixth-grader is curled around the pages of Harry Potter while his mother cajoles him to turn off the light. This youngster will apply his reading skills for the rest of his life. He will slay demons, travel to worlds real and fictional, and communicate with friends near and far – all through the gift of literacy. What will be his tangible rewards for developing strong sixth-grade mathematics skills? Is he, as an emerging young man, confident that math will play a meaningful role in his future? We, as educators, need to show students their true math powers at an early age. If we give them the chance, these youngsters can slay some big demons.
In their earliest years, many children experience both reading and mathematics in concrete and joyful contexts. Early reading is often associated with the warm voice of Mom or Dad, and the engaging images of a picture book. Early math is about counting the pebbles in the playground and adding coins in order to buy a snack.
Continuing through the lower elementary grades, context and engagement support reading and math skill development. Reading instruction focuses on phonemic awareness and phonics, with pictures, songs, and stories helping students learn sound-symbol relationships and form words. In mathematics instruction, students learn the code of basic mathematical expressions by counting plastic bears, multiplying groups of cubes, and dividing a group of M&Ms into equal parts.
In the upper elementary years, things change dramatically. Many students begin to identify themselves as readers, consuming a lot of text, often with considerable pleasure: books, magazines, websites, text messages. Most of this reading is outside of school, and is a natural outcome of ability and interest. Few of these students, however, self-identify as mathematicians. Their math efforts are more closely associated with school, studying the numeric procedures of fractions and decimals with little real world application or connection.
During the early teen years, as a young person is coming of age, reading is connecting the youngster with the world around them, but math is not! Instead, math continues to dwell in skill development. Fractions and decimals lead to algebra. Algebra will lead to high school geometry. Geometry will set the stage for pre-calculus. Pre-calculus is the gateway to calculus. When do emerging adults get to apply their skills in the real world? They have demons to slay!
We educators need to promote experiences that connect young teens’ math prowess to their real world. Middle school mathematicians can be running their school cafeteria, organizing the bus schedules, tracking competitive sports statistics, controlling campus energy consumption, managing small businesses, and monitoring their personal medical data. We can even help students to hear the math in the music around them, see the math in the wonders of nature, and relish in the mathematical patterns found in fine art and architecture.
For the majority of people, math will not supplant reading as a primary pleasure source. But good teaching practice can certainly make mathematics, and particularly mathematical practice, part of the overall joy of life. Harry Potter was able to defeat He Who Can Not Be Named. We leaders in the math education community can overcome the demons of inadequate teaching practices!