Series: Discussions

In Response to “The Wrong Way to Teach Math”


In his recently published article, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” (February 28), Andrew Hacker does a beautiful job making clear some of the ridiculousness of our current national mathematics educational system. His suggestion that we make “quantitative literacy” a goal for all students is a sensible one with broad implications for enhanced equity and social justice.

I take great issue, however, with the idea that “we teach arithmetic quite well in early grades,” and the notion that all we need is middle school coursework in quantitative literacy. Such thinking neglects the root of the problem, which is the largely inadequate math education we now provide during a child’s early years.

Throughout this country, early elementary teachers, for the most part, teach math the way it was taught to them. This instruction emphasizes a procedural approach—do this and get the right answer—as opposed to a conceptual one—understand the problem and apply tools thoughtfully. Students are left with rigid math rules and “tricks” rather than a belief that they can make sense of a problem and flexibly use their knowledge to solve it. As this limited approach fails them, it generates a form of learned “math helplessness” and the conviction that they cannot “do math.” We can do better.

Through our work preparing early childhood teachers and researching teaching and learning, the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute in Chicago focuses on a simple but powerful idea: To stop creating a preponderance of students who are certain they are not and never will be “good at math,” we must fundamentally transform how math is taught in the early years.

With support, the educators of our youngest children can help them become mathematical thinkers, to go from just “doing arithmetic” to thoughtfully and confidently applying mathematics throughout their lives. What we need is greater awareness of the importance of this national problem, and the will to transform our approach to teaching early and elementary mathematics to address it.

What do you think?

  1. Comment icon

    Gavin Creaden

    March 24, 2016 at 3:11pm

    Agreed Jennifer. What you refer to is an entire cultural shift in how children engage (get muddy) in their mathematics, AND how educators facilitate that engagement. It is imperative that these shifts in the habits of mind in both child and adult begin in the early years. And, let us not forget about the parent and family component – change can be uneasy when the new thinking does not reflect what we as parents were exposed to in our own elementary years.

    • Comment iconAuthor

      Jennifer McCray

      March 28, 2016 at 10:42am

      Thanks for your feedback, Gavin! You are so right that the shift that is needed must involve parents as well. We continue to see the repercussions of not including families in a full discussion of why change is needed and what it should look like in the backlash to the Common Core. We won’t achieve real, widespread, and sustainable improvements in instructional practices without knowledgeable support from parents and families. It has to be a broad-based campaign for change!

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      Barbara M Crum

      March 30, 2016 at 1:22pm

      It is imperative that primary teachers allow students to get messy with mathematics. However, there is a point at which students need some guidance in order to build connections between concepts, activities and procedures. There are many more places that students need to get messy with mathematics and it includes in the middle school math classroom and in the high school math classrooms.

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    M. Aguilar

    March 24, 2016 at 3:12pm

    Good afternoon of Spain: to contribute to a better teaching matemátivcas is being developed in Spain the ABN methodology. Here is a link to my iinvitation to visit it and see ls possibilities of this method you are getting excellent results.


  3. Comment icon


    March 24, 2016 at 3:48pm

    Agreed! Conceptual understanding is so important. If children conceptually understand the marhematics they can problem solve and apply the concepts to more difficult mathematics. Having a strong sense of number and being able to think flexibly about numbers is also important.

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    March 24, 2016 at 4:07pm

    Yes. And elementary principals and/or curriculum directors need to support teachers in changing their methods in order for long term systemic change to take place.

    • Comment iconAuthor

      Jennifer McCray

      March 28, 2016 at 10:51am

      Hi Julie,

      Your point about the importance of administrators is very well-taken. The very best teaching does not happen in isolation, but within communities of practice where continual learning is taking place. I know so many teachers who want to change their instructional practices, but feel thwarted by the need to stay rigidly in line with their curriculum’s “scope and sequence.” For many principals and other administrators, who have little to no training in early and elementary mathematics themselves, the scope and sequence is the only way they have to understand what mathematics “should” be happening in the classroom. We can’t make fundamental changes in teaching, particularly in this era of intense accountability, without ensuring that principals and others share teachers’ vision for what excellent math instruction looks like. Further, when administrators are empowered to be thoughtful, knowledgeable instructional leaders, that is when a school or a center becomes a real powerhouse, with all the adults united in providing great teaching and working together to continually improve their instructional practices. We need to set the bar high and demand that administrators develop an altered sense of what kind of math teaching is possible, too. This effort is both necessary to make shifts possible, and the key to real excellence in the long run.

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    March 24, 2016 at 5:26pm

    It essential that teachers of mathematics in early grades be specialists in early childhood mathematics learning.
    The current system has a preponderance of elementary teachers trying to teach mathematics but they themselves are math phobes and have math anxiety. This anxiety is transferred to the children in their classrooms.

  6. Comment icon

    Peggy Zee

    March 24, 2016 at 5:30pm

    I’m in total agreement with Jennifer on the issue of poor mathematical experiences in the early years. The emphasis in mathematics education is so revered in my country yet the mathematical thinking, communication and concepts are not supported with sufficient exploration experiences for the children to form their own mathematical thinking. Whilst the curriculum has been designed to provide elementary children with pictorial models to assist them to dissect and solve word problems, we have not prepared our youngest children to form their own understanding of basic mathematical concepts. Teacher preparation in math curriculum needs to address teachers’ personal fear of the topic, their understanding of fundamental mathematical concepts as well as to scaffold their teaching process to be better prepared to provide our children to enjoy mathematics. We are still grappling with this!

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    March 25, 2016 at 6:52am

    I agree. It is so important for children to construct their own ideas a a strategies in mathematics. As a new teacher, I think my biggest challenge has been to “sell” the idea of building conceptual understanding to administrators in my school, who don’t have a background in child development or early childhood education. Sending them articles like this one really helps!

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    Kathleen Doherty

    March 25, 2016 at 11:17am

    Agreed! I am a Pre-K language and literacy specialist in a very needy area, and because of your Facebook page, I know I have a lot to learn about the language and presentation of Math to my little ones!

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    Marsha Ashley

    March 25, 2016 at 1:28pm

    I agree. I didn’t understand math until I became a Montessori teacher.

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