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It’s Problem Solving That Counts

There’s a trend among some critics of public instruction to try and push creativity out of the teaching of reading and math. Especially in math, they want students to drill on the mechanics, learning the step by step algorithms so that students can recall them for the standardized problems on the next "big test". As a result, most students are taught the "one right answer and one way to get there" approach to math and miss out on the creative aspects of problem solving inherent in the subject.

That’s why I’m glad to see that the MATHCOUNTS program is alive and thriving in middle schools all over the country. MATHCOUNTS (yes, it’s typed all in capitals!) is an annual contest started by the National Society of Professional Engineers as a highlight of Professional Engineers’ week in February. The idea is to challenge 7th and 8th grade students with some relatively complex problems that are still within the abilities of the average student. The competition features both individual and team sections and stresses problem solving skills over rote memorization.

What’s even better than the growing number of kids involved in the competition (over 6000 schools this year) is the fact that many of the MATHCOUNTS coaches are using the same kinds of problems and the same approach to problem solving with all the students in their classes. Memorizing multiplication tables and the steps to solving a linear equation are all fine for passing the next standardized test but they don’t help students develop the problem solving skills necessary to tackle the questions that have messy outcomes or don’t exactly follow the rules. The ones you find in real life, for example.

Another amazing part to this story is that the 2003 and 2004 national MATHCOUNTS competitions are going to be shown on television. ESPN2 will show the 2003 contest this Friday (June 11) at 11am EST, followed by the 2004 competition at noon. Math on commercial television!! If filmmakers can do for a mathematical problem solving contest what they’ve done for the Spelling and Geography Bees, maybe there’s hope for math education in this country after all.

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1 Comment

  1. Dan K.

    I am a big fan of MATHCOUNTS, but I think you’re really reaching to use it to make a case against the use of the “big test.” I think MATHCOUNTS is much more aligned with what you deride as “drilling” and mechanics than it is with some creativity-centered approach to math with less pressure. These kids are ready for MATHCOUNTS problems because they know the drills and the mechanics inside and out, whether it was drilled into them or they just picked it up well. If you listen to the coaches’ comments, you would learn that these kids love practicing math problems. They don’t answer questions about prime factors of differences of factorials instantly because they visualize it in some creative way they’ve invented; they recognize it as the type of problem they’ve practiced against.

    Your blog seems to question the validity of standardized tests and worry about the high stakes, but I would bet that all of the MATHCOUNTS finalists would score at least 700 on the math portion of the SAT—even if they took it as eighth graders. In fact, I’m sure they consider that “big test” to be no big deal. It’s a breeze compared to timed tests, head-to-head, against other math whizzes on national TV.

    I believe I agree with you when you applaud teachers for using MATHCOUNTS coaching techniques in their regular classrooms. I interpret that to mean injecting some enthusiasm and competitiveness (I doubt you like that part) into lessons and using problems that incorporate several facets of math in one problem (e.g. using geometric shapes in posing the problem even though it isn’t a problem about a geometry theorem). I personally lean toward using situations from physics or geography to frame math problems. Still, while a MATHCOUNTS approach in the classroom may inject fun, it falls flat if the students don’t know their multiplication tables or how the distributive property works. That’s right; only after you’ve mastered the drill and mechanics parts of math can you move on to problems in which you creatively build upon that foundation.

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