How to Help Your Child Become a Problem Solver (Intro)

If you learned math the Old Way--at least in the U.S.--you might remember the day you were told stop counting on your fingers. That was the day math stopped being about objects that you could touch and feel, and turned into what many of us now think of when we think about math:

A collection of senseless procedures that we had to memorize in order to survive school.

We memorized steps for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. We memorized formulas for areas of shapes (whatever that meant) and steps for solving for x (why do we care?). Math moved so far away from our reality that we struggled with word problems.


You remember word problems, right? Those dreaded things that, ironically, were the only problems that contained stories that might have actually happened in the real world. We universally dreaded word problems, believing that they were evil test things whose sole purpose was to trick us. We took special classes to learn secret "strategies" to become a "good test taker." By that point, we could no longer see the relevance of math to the things we could experience. Many of us stopped taking math altogether the moment it was no longer required. 

Of course, this was never the intent of our education system. The purpose of learning math is to solve real-world problems, both problems we see in everyday life as well as those encountered in STEM fields. Otherwise, why bother? But instead, otherwise intelligent adults say, "I'm bad at math." But no one says, "I'm bad at reading" with the same feeling of camaraderie. This is the tragedy of American education. After taking that many years of mandatory math classes, every last one of us should feel as confident doing math as we feel about reading.

But it's not our fault. This happened because the Old Way of doing math ignored many important skills that are necessary in solving real-world problems. We were never taught explicitly how to make connections between mathematical representations and the concrete world. We were not immersed in the nature of numbers, and we were not encouraged to see and use patterns.

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Fortunately, over the past several decades, educators have developed new teaching strategies to help all kids how to develop problem-solving skills. They have identified specific skills that are needed so children can solve real-world and STEM-related problems. These skills are now taught explicitly in school, rather than teaching only some ideas, hoping that children figure out problem-solving on their own (which they often don't).

This "New Math" has been a difficult transition for parents who were raised under Old Math. In this series, I will discuss how parents can help their children develop good mathematical practices while helping with homework.

Tip #1: Ask a Question. Then Stop Talking.