Recently I watched my sister trying to help her six-year-old daughter with homework. My niece did not understand how to solve the problems. After watching my sister try several times to explain the homework to my niece, I interrupted (I am the big sister after all) and suggested that my niece think about it in a completely different way. My way was probably the more traditional approach to thinking about the concept. My sister is a creative mastermind and out-of-the-box thinker whereas I was always the straight-ahead, measured-approach, good student. Their interaction got me thinking about how different people learn… well… differently. My niece couldn’t picture it the way my sister was describing it. And my sister couldn’t understand why my niece wasn’t getting it. So, we adjusted our approach to help her figure out this type of problem. Knowing that my niece responded well to this step-by-step approach, we’ll try it again the next time she asks for help with this type of problem. Yet some problems are easier to understand with models than step-by-step because they are more complex. My sister understood that she could try the method I used in the future and might have to adapt to try other descriptions, models and methods for different problems.
If parents understand the needs of their children for different types of problems and know how to help them, they can create a personalized support system at home for their children. Most parents adapt to each of their child’s unique learning needs, providing each with the descriptions, models and methods they individually needed if they knew they needed them.
Observing my sister and my niece got me thinking about the incredible job teachers have. In the classroom, we rely on our teachers to introduce, encourage exploration, explain and model concepts for students in class. Yet what teachers do in the classroom is a lot more complex. There are more students, more abilities, more diverse interests and more needs. All of the different resources that can be brought into the classroom to support students and encourage practice help students understand and grow as learners. But it also adds to the load on the teacher. Teachers are constantly deciding how to introduce concepts, which methods to use and which tools will be helpful for their students. They apply different methods to different students because they know not everyone learns the same exact way or at the same pace. They are re-teaching and breaking concepts down so that students can understand if they didn’t “get it” the first way.
So, thank you teachers! Thank you for the explanations and the opportunity to explore math concepts. Thank you for taking the time to understand students’ needs and bringing tools to them that support them and help them understand. Thank you for investing in and caring for your students. Thank you for all you do for your students and your schools. And as Geoffrey Canada said in a presentation several years ago, it only takes one great math teacher to help a student fall in love with math. Thank you for being that great math teacher!