Making Math Matter

By Theodore Scheps
Curriculum Coordinator, Office of Catholic Schools

At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard yourself or someone else say “I’m just not a math person.”

The idea that some people are capable of learning math while the rest are doomed to wander the earth eternally hating long-division seems to be backed up by our experiences during our education.

After all, aren’t people either left or right-brained? Aren’t some people more creative than others? So it must be true that some people just are math people, right? Well, years of research from independent math education groups, alongside the incredible work of over 50 educators and administrators throughout our Louisville Catholic school community developing our new math standards, would say the answer is a resounding “No.”

What distinguishes “math people” isn’t a strand of genetic code, but an understanding of the mechanics behind the algorithms we were taught just to memorize in our own math classes.

We can see the difference between understanding and memorization in the way we use math as adults. How many of us learned the Pythagorean Theorem, but never learned why A2+B2=C2? How many of us instinctively “carry the one” or “borrow” but can’t explain why it works?

We learned these standard formulas in rote problem-solving applications with few or no real-world connections. This left so many students unable to solve problems that don’t perfectly fit the standard mold, unlikely to retain those algorithms, utterly bored by math classes, and prone to wonder “When are we ever going to need this?”

All of our students can become math people given the right learning environment. To that end, our new math framework is designed to completely change the focus of the classroom from memorizing an algorithm to understanding a concept, from plugging in a formula to devising a strategy, and from watching a demonstration to playing with the underlying mechanics.

It will look and function so differently from the classes that we grew up with that you may not recognize much of it, but there are still ways to support your children in this style of learning. Asking “How do you know this?” instead of confirming whether or not an answer is correct, having them describe their strategy for a problem instead of showing them the standard algorithm to speed things up, and encouraging them to try multiple approaches to work through the problems they’re struggling with instead of hinting towards the solution may be difficult at first, but those changes, along with the new curriculum and practices will allow every single one of our students to grow into mathematicians.

With all of these big changes this year, it can be a lot to digest, and especially difficult to understand how best to support your students as they experience these transitions. However, with continuous and ongoing support planned for our school communities throughout the year, we at the Office of Catholic Schools are confident in our teachers’, administrators’, and students’ ability to master these challenges, and we are so excited for the incredible growth our students will achieve as a result of these bold new strategies.