Mathematics, Everywhere for Everyone

Bridging the gap between math in the classroom and math at home — for all families

By Leah Shafer, on June 2, 2016 3:28 PM
Mathematics, Everywhere for Everyone: Bridging the gap between math in the classroom and math at home — for all families #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

The idea of “learning math” often conjures the image of a student hunched over his desk, solving problems using a set formula he copied down from his teacher. Math, we tend to think, is a strict set of algorithms, practices, and rules — all emanating from inside the classroom. New resources from the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), though, paint a different picture entirely — elevating the role of the family as a source of math knowledge.

In its latest initiative, HFRP is focusing on the idea that children’s knowledge of math is “broad and deep,” developing anywhere, anytime, and even starting at birth. Families are instrumental to their children's success in mathematics, as they can help children recognize and use mathematical thinking in everyday activities.

But today's math assignments can be confounding for parents who learned math in a pre-Common Core era, or in a different country — or who still harbor math anxiety from their own days at school, or never fully learned to connect the dots between everyday actions and math lessons. To ensure students are ready to thrive, educators have to partner with parents, acknowledging how diverse families already use math — and how they understand and grapple with math in their own ways.

Math Is Cultural

To start, educators should keep in mind three broad ideas about mathematics and families, as explained by Diane Kinch and Marta Civil of the group TODOS: Mathematics for All.

  1. Mathematics is cultural. Families, especially parents who went to school outside of the United States, may have learned math differently than the way their children are learning it. They may have indicated decimals with commas instead of periods, or relied more on mental math in long division — and they may become confused (or confuse their children) when not introduced to the methods taught in their children’s school.
  2. Mathematics exists in many different ways in many different communities. Research often concludes that lower-income homes don’t do as many math activities as upper-income homes. But all families use math with their children, whether it’s through halving a recipe, calculating gas mileage, or figuring out the right angle to shoot a basketball. It’s up to teachers to connect with their school community and understand the practices and strengths of the families they work with. 
  3. Students learn best when their families and teachers are co-learners. Teachers should help cultivate the mindset that everyone has different beliefs about what’s important in mathematics, and how that should be taught and learned.

Five Strategies for Connecting with Families

How exactly can educators connect with families about mathematics? HFRP offers specific suggestions, drawn from TODOS, the case study “Daddy Says This New Math Is Crazy,” and the program Nana y Yo y las Mathematicas:

  • Leverage parents’ mathematical strengths. Seek out opportunities to identify math content and approaches with which parents are familiar. Look for and encourage instances of parents using math with their children, such as counting or noticing shapes, before asking parents to try out a new technique.
  • Make communication with parents the focus of homework. It’s easy for children and parents to grow frustrated when children can’t remember how to do their homework, and parents don’t understand the method that their children are supposed to use. Circumvent this problem by assigning students homework specifically asking them to teach the new method they learned that day to their parents.
  • Organize math discussions with families. Coordinate get-togethers to discuss content, ways to solve problems, and which skills are most important — meetings in which everyone is open to learning from each other.
  • Invite parents into the classroom. Ask parents to speak to their class about times that they have used math in their everyday lives. To demonstrate how mathematics is different — and the same — across cultures, invite parents to teach the class a lesson using the methods they learned in school, or using the same methods, but in another language.
  • Capture classroom lessons on video. Visits during the school day are not feasible for all families. Use smartphones to text short videos of lessons, to ensure parents feel included and aware of new learning methods.

Additional Resources

  • Learn how this work was featured at a recent White House symposium on early STEM education.
  • Watch a webinar on including parents from diverse communities in Common Core State Standards in mathematics.
  • Read a commentary explaining how math-rich environments are everywhere, and how parents can help children notice them.
  • Read a Q+A on Bedtime Math, a program that gives parents ways to talk about math at any time of day — even bedtime.

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