The way we teach math does not always reflect what we know about students’ conceptual development, report researchers at the American Institutes for Research. In many primary and middle-school classes, math content is taught by emphasizing procedural skills rather than concepts.
These researchers believe that by focusing on procedures first, students may have difficulty recognizing related concepts later. These researchers report that students who learn rules before they learn concepts tend to score significantly lower on achievement tests than do students who learn concepts first.
Students need to learn concepts first
While the research is somewhat limited and should be replicated, results consistently show the importance of explaining, reasoning, and using multiple representations to help students develop their understanding. Once students are given procedural instructions, they tend to resist new ideas and to apply procedures without thinking about why they work.
Researchers suggest that mathematics teachers can take some simple steps to do a better job of putting research into practice. First, promote discussion by posing open-ended questions: Why do you think that? Can you explain your reasoning? How do you know that? Second, make explicit connections and use pictures, concrete materials and role playing as part of instruction. These allow for multiple and alternative paths to understanding. Third, avoid instruction focused on teaching a single correct approach to arrive at a single correct answer.
“Teach Mathematics Right the First Time,” Educational Leadership, Volume 62, Number 1, September 2004, pp. 88-89.
Published in ERN November/December 2004 Volume 17 Number 8