This article looks at how a Mathematics PD project at the Istanbul International Community School purposefully engaged parents, and discusses how we can leverage the diversity of our international school communities to help build positive dispositions toward Mathematics in our students.
We’ve all had them before, those conversations with parents that are difficult because “My kids aren’t being taught mathematics the way I was, I don’t know what’s going on and it’s hard for me to help them at home.” What often comes next is a request for more traditional, algorithm-based approaches to teaching their children “the right way to do mathematics.”
As educators we all know that strong foundation skills are important for a child to develop the ability to effectively use mathematics in today’s world. But we also know that “one size fits all” has no place in a rigorous mathematics program. The deep understanding of important mathematical concepts that PYP schools are working to develop in their students need a much more diverse and engaging approach. Recently we had a parent session that broke through many of these stereotypical parent interactions. It was part of our Faculty in Residence Program this year in which an education instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, worked with our entire community to “raise the bar” and ensure our program is developing students with positive attitudes and dispositions towards maths. He helped build bridges between the perspectives of parents and that of teachers. “We sometimes see parents in a difficult light and consider them out of touch with educational trends,” he said, “but they are a critical source of support for their kids learning, so we need to bring them on side to help us develop the positive math dispositions we want in our students.” This was a helpful shift in thinking for our staff, leading to dialogue and new approaches for engaging parents in home-based mathematics support.
The parent session began with a basic problem: What is 256 – 148? The consultant posed the question, passed out pencils and paper, and gave some time for people to find their answer. The simplicity of the problem meant everyone could participate, and the impact was clear when volunteers came up to show their solutions on chart paper. The parents soon saw two quite different ways of solving the equation, and many of them were confused as to the approach and thinking of those who did not answer it “their way.”
So there it was, clear for all to see, something that mathematics educators have been saying for many years now: there is more than one way to solve a maths problem. The consultant unpacked each process, highlighting the steps and the core concepts at play in each as he went. Questions and queries were answered and most people came to see the logic of both approaches. He emphasized that neither strategy is better than the other; both are adequate to correctly solve the problem. The important thing was that each parent had a way to solve the problem that they understood and made sense to them. But most (though not all) were limited in their inability to easily understand “the other way,” because rather than having learned in a manner that developed their understanding of the underlying concepts, they had been taught to memorize a single algorithm that would provide the correct answer when executed properly.
This was when the consultant was able to open their eyes to the power of a conceptually-oriented mathematics program, where we purposefully expose students to a variety of solutions. “Much of primary mathematics is about composing and decomposing numbers,” he said. “Taking numbers apart and putting them together again in ways that matter to the problem.” The ensuing conversation then explored how each method of solving 256 – 148 had its own logic, and by understanding both of them, our understanding of how numbers blend and merge is enhanced. This develops a far deeper level of understanding than procedural rote application of a single algorithm. And the more we can give students that deeper understanding, the more functional and comfortable they will be when working practically with mathematics in their own lives.
In closing the session, the consultant emphasized two points for parents. First of all, he clarified “When you show your kids something and they say “That’s not how we do it in school,”… you can tell them “I know, that’s ok, but this is how we do it at home.” It shouldn’t have to be one or the other; it’s the understanding that counts.” For parents who have been reluctant to share “their way” with their children at home, this was a welcome suggestion.
The consultant also spoke to the mathematical benefits that students derive from the cultural diversity they are exposed to in international schools. “You have chosen an international school so your children can learn other languages and cultures, in order to better understand the world.” He explained how the same is true in mathematics; diverse approaches can strengthen mathematical understanding. “And this all lines up with the Learner Profile; look at how many of you were risk takers today, and communicators and thinkers… this approach really aligns with the IB approach and philosophy”. And finally, “We sit with our kids and talk about their reading and writing every day when they’re young; this is just good parenting.”. “We need to do the same with mathematics, because the more diverse and differing approaches they see and hear about, the deeper their understanding will become.”
Rob Grantham is the Primary Principal at Istanbul International Community School. His overseas career began at CDNIS in Hong Kong in 2010, after nearly 20 years in the BC public system on Vancouver Island. He has a deep commitment to building positive learning cultures and community cohesion through collaborate staff development. You can follow him on Twitter @robgrantham.