Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is this Really 4th Grade Math?

Here is a problem my 4th grade boy had to work in school. Tell me if you think this is a problem 4th graders should be able to do:

Miguel planted 4 different kinds of plants in his vegetable garden. The garden contains a total of 72 plants. Of the plants, 15 are tomato and 12 are squash. The remaining plants are either lettuce or cucumbers. The number of lettuce plants is twice the number of cucumber plants. How many lettuce plants are in Miguel's garden?

If you are comfortable with algebra, you can solve this in your head without pencil and paper. So, how many lettuce plants are there? Be the first to post the answer, but tell us if you used paper and pencil or if you are an engineer or mathematician!

How many 4th graders in a class of 20 do you think can solve this?

The children were given nine different strategies to try and guess the answer, but the glory of math is that you can be taught to solve problems and not have to guess.

One reason America ranks low in math when compared to the industrialized world is that we have flawed teaching strategies. Many ninth graders have trouble solving a problem like this at the beginning of the year, so the strategy is to show algebra to kids at earlier grades. No matter how early they shove this in the curriculum, the kids who have trouble with this in 8th and 9th grade still have trouble with it in 8th and 9th grade. Eventually this ends up in 4th, 3rd, and 2nd grade. Yes, I remember showing my son how to do algebra problems in 2nd grade. Why? He still doesn't know algebra in 4th grade. Grades 3 through 5 are too early to do algebra. It is a waste of classroom time and reinforces in some kids the idea that math is too hard for them.

The idea of pushing algebraic concepts into grades 3 through 5 is part of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, but not full-blown algebra problems. The problem I shared with you here is not like the example in the NCTM website for grades 3 - 5. PISD has mis-applied the concept.

There is a lot we can do to improve mathematics education in the elementary schools. Vote for me and let's work together to improve our children's education.


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