by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
NCTM Summing Up, December 2010
I’ve received a flurry of media requests from reporters about what to tell
parents whose children ask for help with their mathematics schoolwork. Family
members might ask, “What do I tell my child when I don’t remember ever seeing
this type of mathematics when I was a student?” Or, “I was never good at math, so
what can I do to help my child?” When I’m asked these questions, three things
come to mind. (1) Remember, mathematics is important, and we can all do it. (2)
Work together as a team with your child—don’t show how to do it. (3)
Investigate the NCTM resources that can provide assistance when helping your
children with their math work.
and foremost, I implore family members not to say, “I was never good at mathematics,
either.” That response only widens the spread of our national mathematical
cultural disease—that it’s acceptable not to be good at math. (See President’s
Message, October 5 Summing Up, for more about this malady). There is no
such thing as a math gene. That is both a myth and an excuse. Doing math just takes
perseverance and a positive attitude, but everyone
can enjoy success with mathematics.
also important that as parents, family members, and adult mentors, we thank our students for asking for our help
with their math work. This provides us with a golden opportunity to point out
how important mathematics is in our lives—that it is essential in building
structural and technological tools; empowers new discoveries in the physical,
biological, and social sciences; and is also extraordinarily beautiful, as seen
in the visual, spatial, and musical arts.
I encourage family members to ask their students to share what they know about
the particular math problem at hand. One good strategy is to ask, “Tell me what
the problem is, and help me understand how you are thinking about it. What do
you think we need to do?” This can buy a panicky parent a bit of time to get his
or her thoughts together, and it also puts parents and children on a level
playing field and quickly gets them working together as a team. This is a
strategy that math tutors can also use effectively, to get a student talking
about a problem and sharing what he or she already knows. Often, in the process
of talking it through, a student will figure out what is needed, or the next
step to take. Students always know more than they think they know—and often more
than they will admit to knowing. If you do know the answer, or how to proceed,
then ask more questions and try to help the students figure it out for themselves.
Never give away how to do the problem. Doing that disenfranchises students. If
instead we help them figure out how to proceed, then we empower them, and their
mathematical confidence grows. Remember, it’s about them, not about us, when
they ask for help.
I heartily recommend a visit to the Family Resources page at NCTM’s Web site.
Featured resources include A Family’s
Guide: Fostering Your Child’s Success in School Mathematics; Involving Families in Mathematics Education;
and Figure This: Math Challenges for
Families. Resources at the site also point to mathematics in children’s
literature. The Family’s Guide
includes questions that parents can ask their children and their teachers about
the math that they are studying, as well as information about NCTM’s Content
and Process Standards. In addition, the site offers a collection of one-page
responses to frequently asked questions. FigureThis
is a set of 80 mathematics problems and challenges for families to investigate
and enjoy. Originally created for middle school students, many of these
problems are appropriate for a wide range of students, from grades 5–10, and
The Six DO’s for Families and Their Math
mathematics with daily life
about mathematics-related careers
high expectations for your students
homework—don’t do it!
approach the holidays and the New Year, I wish all NCTM members, mathematics
teachers, students, and families around the globe the very best of mathematical
years to come—and let’s not hesitate to add peace for all. Forgive me for taking a small liberty with one of our holiday songs—May your students be merry and bright, and all your math solutions be right.