# Posts tagged inquiry-based math

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A few years ago I viewed “The Hundred Languages of Children,” a travelling exhibit about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.  If you’re not familiar with this approach it, among other things, considers the environment (of the classroom and other spaces) as a “third teacher”.

Of course, I was drawn to the part of the exhibit that focused on movement and dance as one of the “hundred languages” with which children express themselves.  There was a video that showed the children’s first experiences with an old factory space – a huge room empty except for two rows of large, white columns.  The children were running around and between the columns, peeking around them, and interacting with their friends, all movements and ideas that eventually turned into a formal piece of choreography.

At the time I was just starting to think about creating a math/dance program for preschoolers and my biggest question was how could I encourage that kind of exploration?   It seemed unlikely I would be able to find an empty factory or other interesting environment and get a bunch of preschoolers there on a weekly basis.  And then it hit me – I could create an environment out of tape.  I could define three-dimensional space using two-dimensional lines and colors.

After experimenting with my daughter’s preschool class, I came up with some starting points for parents and teachers who are interested in employing tape in the interest of math and kinesthetic exploration of space.

A simple straight line taped down a hallway becomes a pathway.  It also divides the space in two, and provides a chance to walk on it or jump over it.  Best of all, one can march (or walk, or skip, or slide, etc.) rhythmically down it singing “As I was marching down the street, down the street, down the street…”  Or, tape two or more parallel lines down a space and see what happens when you sing “Down by the banks of the hankey pankey, when the bullfrogs jump from bank to bankey…”

A simple alteration of a child’s environment can deepen their experience and exploration of the space around them.  When my daughter was three her teachers put down a straight line of tape to help the class ‘line up’ before leaving the classroom.  It was a simple, visual learning strategy that appeared to work as envisioned by the teachers.  Later in the year though, I saw pictures of what else the kids had done with the line.  They had used their large blocks to build a wall the length of the tape and then lined up their animals and cars alongside it.

A simple taped perimeter can highlight empty space, as in “Find an empty spot inside the tape and make a shape.”  Floor tape can define and redefine the space it’s in.  Large open spaces encourage a lot of endless running.  The minute you create a large rectangular box on the floor, with corners, you now have enough visual cues to focus a preschooler’s attention to IN (the box), OUT (of the box), AROUND (the sides of the box), CORNERS, and ACROSS, all age-appropriate math terminology.

Ultimately, I would love if every parent or preschool teacher would put down taped lines in their living and learning spaces then stand back to observe how the children interact with them.

Start with one straight line and go from there but don’t bring attention to it.  Let your kids find it and interact with it on their own volition and let us know what you observe!

p.s. FYI, when I talk about ‘floor tape’ I am referring to two different products, both of them sticky.  First, there’s painters tape which is blue and low tack so it can come up easily off both hard surfaces and carpet. There is also the floor tape that P.E. teachers use, which comes in lots of fabulous colors, the better to design with, my dear.

## Discovering Signs and Symbols

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Lately my 5-year old has been very interested in signs – road signs, signs at the entrances to parks, museums, office buildings, etc. Which led to some really interesting conversations about how rules (and ideas in general) can be represented as symbols.

Unlike written words or letters (which are symbols as well), well-designed signs are much more intuitive and easier for pre-readers and early readers to interpret independently. By the way, have you ever noticed how many of the signs we encounter are the ones that prohibit something rather than inform or encourage? I never did until my son pointed it out saying “see, this sign says no smoking, this – no drinking, this – no music, this – no guns. Signs are for saying “no” to things.”

So back to the conversation that we, my son (S) and I (M for Mama) had a few days ago:

S: Mama, when my tree house is finished, I’m going to invite all my friends and put a big sign “no girls allowed”

M: How would you make a sign like that?

S: Easy, I’ll just make a big red circle with a thick line across like that (draws in the air) and there will be a girl on it, like on bathroom doors.

M: Ok, but what if your cousin A comes to visit? Can she play in your tree house? (My son loves playing with his oldest cousin)

S: (after some thinking about it) Sure!

M: But then you need to make a different sign. What would it look like?

S: (after some more thinking) Ok, I’ll just put her picture next to the other sign. It has to be a smiling picture.

M: What if (names of a couple of girls he knows well from playdates) want to come play? Will you let them into the treehouse?

S: (after even more thinking) Yes. All girls I know can come and play. Only girls who are strangers can’t come. And if they are not very little.

M: Ok, but then you have to change the sign.

S: (sounding a bit weary) I dunno. Put more pictures. (runs away)

We had a few more conversations about signs that were similar to this one. My son would come up with a very broad rule and a sign for it. I would then suggest scenarios that did not fit the rule and he’d adjust the rule. And we’d try to figure out how to create a sign that would accurately reflect the new rule.

Since all these conversations were completely “on the fly”, usually while walking or right after reading a bedtime story. Which, I figured out, is not the best time since we don’t get to put any of the sign designs on paper.

But now I’m thinking what kind of a sign-making game can I put together (something that wouldn’t take too long). Any suggestions? Please share!

## “The Cult of Right Answers” by David Albert

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After we posted “Can you let them fail?” there was a lovely discussion at our Facebook group. As a part of it, David Albert (above) offered the Moebius Noodles community an excerpt from his latest book. David describes himself as father, husband, author, magazine columnist, itinerant storyteller, and speaker. Here is the gem from David:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
- Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

I grew up in the cult of right answers. To this day, I’m sure I don’t know quite why my schools thought it all that important to initiate me into the cult. My wife in her antiquarian pursuits balances the family checkbook. She says the bank is virtually always right, so if things are more than a few cents off, she assumes she got something wrong, and adjusts accordingly to make things conform. Meera, my future-accountant daughter, would likely do the same, though she’d bother about the pennies as well.

In my quantitative work in my day job, when my hunch is that things are “off”, I’ve learned over time that it is almost never the result of a math error, but because of a problem at the data entry point, a computer shut-down, or any number of exigencies having virtually nothing to do with arithmetic. I have learned to look for results that are consistent; unless I have alarm bells set off elsewhere, I almost never examine them to see whether they are right.

When I go to the grocery store to buy a jar of spaghetti sauce (\$1.89 on sale) and a package of spaghetti (\$.99), if I want to know whether I’ve got enough money, I always add from left to right (just how I was taught not to do when I was in school), I estimate well enough, and I pay absolutely no attention to the fact that the final digit in the addition is “8”. Since I am likely to pay for it with my debit card, I am not going to count the change either.

I do the same with estimating the time the bread is baking in the oven (have any of you actually checked the accuracy of the electronic timer?), how long it will take to defrost the chicken in the microwave, my gas mileage or the distance to my destination, or the amount of salt to put into the dish when the recipe calls for “a pinch”.

And so, looking back at my school experiences, it is difficult to see what purpose the cult of right answers, which extended far beyond the world of mathematics, served, other than as an odd kind of social sorting mechanism. The successful competitors (including me) sat on the edges of our seats, ready to perform our next trick and obtain a herring from our trainers, the less successful got hungrier in the back until many forgot what food was. But the actual purpose for my initiation was, I believe to this day, to indicate that they thought they “owned” me, and that, deep down, I was one of them. Am I? In more than 30 years of deschooling, this is something that I am still trying to figure out.

There is nothing wrong with right answers of course. When I drive over a bridge, I am depending on the architect and builder having calculated the load capacity correctly. I need to be sure that the loan calculator used to figure out my mortgage payment is accurate, and I want to feel certain when I read that someone other than Ichiro has won the American League batting championship.

That’s all well and good, but I think it can’t be emphasized enough how the cult of right answers can be damaging to one’s capacity to learn, and can stymie both creativity and curiosity. And this is true whether one turns out to be good at it or not.

I was most definitely a science and math nerd in school, and was well-rewarded and advanced in the cult for my right answers. I also had some very concrete experience of what happened when the “right” answer (you’ll see the reason for quotations marks in a minute) wasn’t forthcoming.

This is a tale not even my mother knows. I was nominated for an all-expense-paid, two-week trip to a newly established (soon to be prestigious) math camp, for which we had to take a competitive exam. There were six scholarships awarded. There were 50 questions, each worth two points. Six of the competitors scored 100 points on the exam. I scored a 99. Why? In a geometric proof, I left out A=A. Well, duh! This is more Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose”) than Isaac Newton. I can’t imagine there is a mathematician in the entire universe who would have cared (though I never really met a mathematician until I was in my mid-20s), but I learned my lesson well.

I never took a single math course after high school; now I use quantitative analysis in my daily work. Go figure.

I often recommend the wonderful book The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger to homeschoolers. The book is engaging and very well written, nicely illustrated, and opens up a world of mathematics to children and youth that they might otherwise never know was even there. It was originally written for 10-11 year olds, I think, but I have actually discovered that children as young as seven (some of whom having had it read to them) find great pleasure in it.

And, yet, I have a confession to make. I recently retrieved my copy down from the shelf and read it for the third time. Each time, I experience the same response, a falling feeling in the pit of my stomach. I want to put it down, but I fight through the queasiness. The number devil poses conundrums that cannot be solved, provides answers that are clearly correct but cannot be explained, and are intended to excite a general sense of wonderment at the wide, beautiful world of mathematics. But the feeling of wonderment when it comes to mathematics was confiscated from me when I joined the cult’s inner circle. And like my permanent record, it seems to have disappeared into the ether long ago, and it is awfully difficult to cultivate it anew.

The cult of right answers is based at bottom on the fear of wrong answers, fear of failure, fear of error, fear of disappointing those upon whose favor one has come to depend on for one’s self-esteem and self-worth. It may work short-term, but in the longer run, fear is a very poor motivator for learning, and a prime cause of apathy. For while a continuous string of right answers might assuage fear for a while, an equally effective way of coping with fear is to cultivate a feeling that learning really doesn’t matter, or to deliberately (even if sometimes unconsciously) respond with wrong answers so that external expectations are lowered, or to simply attempt to absent oneself from the entire enterprise. After one experiences failure enough times and sees that the short-term consequences are really not so devastating, apathy born of failure becomes an acceptable response. Once having become discouraged, humiliated, baffled, or fearful, an apathetic silence can become a welcome refuge.

This silence can easily be reinforced, of course. Most of the days I passed in school I spent with the ‘know-it-alls’. They expended most of the day talking at me. It might have been the case that they were there to answer our questions, but it quickly became evident, as virtually every school child knows, that the know-it-alls (the teachers, of course) asked 95% of the questions, and 98% of the time already knew the answers. Sometimes there were “discussions”, which never really resembled anything like discussions in the real world; they were just manipulative tools for soliciting right answers. How many times I can remember the leading questions being answered by a classmate in a way already predetermined to being just not quite right, and the teacher calling on someone else to remedy the ‘ignorance’ displayed by the first responder. Shame and learning cannot occupy the same psychological space at the same time, for when they are forced into the same box, the only likely result is loss of self-respect….”

Some of Davids’ books:

## Can You Let Them Fail?

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One of the hardest things for me as a parent is to watch my son fail. I know I am not the only one like that – watching over our kids, protecting, suggesting right solutions, correcting just in time before they fail whether on a playground or in a classroom.

But, as Roger Schank writes in his book Coloring Outside the Lines, “you can’t learn unless you are willing to fail”. Failing compels one to try it again (aka practice) and/or try it again differently (aka creative approach).

Bon at MathFour.com frequently talks about the importance of inquiry-based instructions. She says

One of my favorite to teach… is through letting the students be “King for a Day”. I give them a never before seen math problem and allow them to make the rules on how to solve it. As they make the “wrong” rules, they will play with them and see that they can’t work. That’s the beauty in it! Just make sure to encourage them to do some problems (i.e. experiment) with their new rules so they can make sure it works fine.

So next time I am tempted to rush in and save my son’s block structure from toppling or nudge the right puzzle piece closer to him or inflect my voice just so when asking him which element goes next into a pattern, this one or THIS one, I will count to 10 and repeat the “let him see for himself” mantra. And yes, through my son’s failures I will experience my own ones. But I think the “you can’t grow unless you are willing to fail” rule works for adults as well. I am prepared to test it. Will you join me?

by Yelena

Image source: by Nationaal Archief on Flickr.com

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