Teaching Real Math In First Grade

Back in ancient days, when I was making my way through K12, Algebra was a class you took as a freshman in high school and a topic that was introduced one or two years before.

Now kids barely past Kindergarten are learning the concepts.

Long considered a high school staple, introductory algebra is fast becoming a standard course in middle school for college-bound students. That trend is putting new pressure on such schools as Viers Mill to insert the building blocks of algebra into math lessons in the earliest grades.

Disappointing U.S. scores on international math tests have added to the urgency of a movement that is rippling into kindergarten. At stake, some politicians say, is the country’s ability to produce enough scientists and engineers to compete in the global economy.

There are much better reasons for teaching algebraic concepts in elementary schools beyond doing better on standardized tests.

One is getting away from “very boring math”, an apt description of the traditional K-8 math curriculum, a staple of which is the constant repetition of arithmetic drills better handled by a calculator.

Another is that younger students are far more capable of understanding Algebra topics than we give them credit for. If they are presented correctly, without an over emphasis on memorizing algorithms.

The big problem with this plan, however, is that most elementary teachers are not prepared to teach math at that level.

But education experts say students aren’t the only ones who need more rigorous instruction. Too many elementary school teachers, they say, lack the know-how to teach math effectively.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know, and your students won’t love the subject unless you love the subject,” Kenneth I. Gross, a University of Vermont mathematics and education professor, recently told a group of college mathematicians at a conference hosted by the U.S. Education Department and the National Science Foundation. “All of mathematics depends on what kids do in the elementary grades. If you don’t do it right, you’re doing remedial work all the way up to college. Arithmetic, algebra and geometry are intertwined.”

I don’t mean to insult anyone but many of the elementary teachers I talk to about teaching math are actually afraid of the subject.

Let’s face it. Most of them signed up to teach kids reading, socialization, and general living skills. Not math (or science for that matter).

But, despite the assumption by some that taking math classes is all that would be necessary, the solution is more complex than that. Teachers also need “strong training in instructional techniques”.

Almost all elementary schools in our district have a full-time reading teacher. Very few employ a math specialist to assist classroom teachers with their lessons and skills in this supposedly important subject.

Of course, some of the “back to basics” crowd will complain that what kids really need is more drill and practice in long division, and other processes better done by a calculator.

Save the Algebra until they can do all that stuff in their sleep – or are totally turned off to the subject, which ever comes first.

However, if we really want students to understand the what and why of mathematics, not to mention actually want to study it at higher levels, they need to start learning – and using – the concepts early.

education, math, algebra, elementary

4 Comments Teaching Real Math In First Grade

  1. J.D. Williams

    I teach 6th grade and one of our “Power Standards” for the second quarter was Algebraic Reasoning. We use a program called Hands on Equations that use chess pawns and number cubes. I know that the school I work at has the Hands on Equations materials down into the 3rd grade. Not very many teachers use them. One of our district benchmark questions was 20n = 300 + 5n What does 15n equal? It’s easier than it looks because as soon as you subtract 5n from each side you have 15n = 300. Most of my students were trying to solve for n then multiply it by 15. I know that the other 6th grade math teacher had huge issues with the question, but he has huge issues with just about everything.

    Luckily in my district we do have full time math achievement advisors (coaches) at each site along with the reading coach.

  2. Christina Lemmey

    I couldn’t agree more that elementary school teachers need more help in teaching math! Kids all learn differently and they are bored to death looking at math facts and being expected to memorize them. I have a 5th grader who has hated math practically since the beginning and she struggled with it a lot last year. Why can’t teachers make math fun??

  3. Henry Borenson, Ed.D.

    It is important for young students to develop a positive attitude to mathematics and to know that they can excel in the subject. A good way of accomplishing this is by showing them how successful they can be with basic algebra.

    It is true that teachers cannot teach what they do not know, but we have found that attending a full-day Making Algebra Child’s Play workshop was sufficient to have their grade school students solve equations such as 4x + 3 = 3x + 9 with ease and understanding. The excitement that the teachers experience in being able to finally understand basic algebra and to apply the concepts to solving verbal problems is very palpable. They become very enthusiastic about sharing the program with their students. Although the Hands-On Equations program is very easy to use, teachers are sometimes pressed for time to learn it on their own. Hence, attending a workshop is very helpful. The website http://www.borenson.com/videos has some video clips of students using the program to solve equations. The DVD instructional manual, or these clips, can assist a teacher who is not already familiar with how to use the program.

  4. organized chaos

    I love teaching algebraic concepts to first graders. You can almost watch their minds pop as they figure out the patterns of how math works. And, as you point out, teaching algebra is a lot more fun than the skill and drill alternative. The kids see it all as different games and puzzles to figure out. Are you familiar with Greg Tang’s books? He has written multiple math children’s books based on teaching math concepts at an early age. He is a phenomenal speaker, and his books are engaging!

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