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Help your children learn to love math before it's too late

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- "I hate math!"

As a fourth-grade math teacher, I hear this at least once daily. It's like a dagger to the heart every single time.

I have been hearing this even more since math instruction has moved away from first instilling the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (to some detriment, I believe) toward "problem solving" and abstracted versions of the simple equations that older generations practiced.

Long before the mantra of problem solving became gospel in education, it fed into the concept of what a 21st century "leader" should be able to accomplish. From there, the modern transformational leader (usually of the tech or finance variety) injected the credo into the hiring process, a la the famed set of puzzles put forth to job applicants at Google.

Example: "How would you cut a rectangular cake into two equal pieces when a rectangular piece has already been cut out of it? The cut piece can be of any size and orientation. You are only allowed to make one straight cut."

This question requires an understanding of both mathematical and geometric equalities, as well as background knowledge of what a rectangular cake looks like. Seems like common sense stuff, but you'd be surprised how many people have trouble solving it.

(Make a diagonal cut through the center of the corner of the missing cake piece, by the way.)

The human resources trend of testing potential employees with puzzles, brain teasers and, in some cases, questions from the SAT test became standard practice at large organizations circa 2015 -- about the same time that K-12 public education changed its objective from "educating citizens" to getting students "college and career ready."

As a result, kindergartners are trained to parse simple word problems and taught to fill out worksheets of simple math equations like "1 + 2 =" (prematurely, as far as I'm concerned).

So, when I get them in fourth grade, they either have excellent math skills or "hate math" -- in, almost certainly, the same proportions as when I was a fourth-grader. I heard the dreaded chant Monday again, as I assigned the week's homework to my students.

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