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Integrating investigative skills develops better mathematics students

RFSD UpdateSuzie Romig

For a moment, you are back in the fourth grade, and the teacher is handing out this word problem.A farmer decided to count his cows and chickens, but he did this by counting legs and heads. He counted 35 heads and 78 legs. How many cows and chickens did he have?Not sure where to begin? That’s the point of the lesson.Carbondale Elementary School students faced the farmyard riddle last week during a two-week math lesson focused on problem-solving. Students in groups of twos or threes worked through strategies to end up with the correct answer plus the understanding to explain the process to their classmates. Students used everything from counting beans to visualizing with colored blocks to drawing stick figures”I’m trying to teach the skills to figure out, are they doing what the question is asking?” said CES teacher Alysha Walker. “They need to be able to explain their thinking and how they got there.”The exercise is one of many lessons going on in kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms in the Roaring Fork School District this year. Teachers say the school district is adapting to teach math “smarter.”Instruction is based on the new, nationally respected Scott Foresman math curriculum that integrates both traditional pencil-to-paper learning with a nontraditional “investigations” or exploratory approach of hands-on, critical thinking.Teachers use a variety of visual math tools from geometric shapes to fraction cubes, from measuring tapes to play money to make sure students understand the underlying number sense and mathematics. “We don’t want to just teach the algorithm, we want the kids to understand the concept behind the algorithm,” said Anita Parker, one of two instructional facilitators assigned to support teachers. “We want to have the concepts solid in earlier grades, so that after the concept has been introduced and understood by students, you can go to paper and pencil.”Students struggling to grasp math word problems is a national issue, Parker said, but standardized tests often pose math questions in words. The new curriculum gives teachers more tools and flexibility to help all levels of students in the diverse district.The aim of using a consistent, logical math curriculum across the district is for students to become effective problem-solvers as they continue through school. Teachers also want to help prepare third- and fourth-graders who will take the math CSAP for the first time this school year.”Our goal is not only to improve math scores, but ultimately to help kids become better mathematicians, to appreciate math and to see daily applications of math,” Parker said.Back in the fourth-grade classroom, students explain which of 10 problem-solving strategies they used to sort through the chickens and cows. Listed at the front of the classroom, options include: brainstorm, look for a pattern, guess and check, act it out or use objects, work backward, use logic, make an organized list, draw a picture or diagram, make it simpler or create a table.Although the process is more crucial than the answer, in case you were wondering, it’s 31 chickens and four cows.Suzie Romig is the RFSD’s public information officer.


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