What is math?

Vijayalakshmi Nagarajan

M – Mental
A – Ability
T – To
H – Handle Situations

Vocabulary enrichment is essential in the development of mathematical concepts in children. Most often we miss out on this, leading to a sense that math is difficult and complicated, and as a result children end up disliking the subject and developing a mental block towards it.

The teaching of math should happen with fun and laughter in class. The stereotypical math teacher is very serious and the subject is presented in a very strict, matter of fact manner, which robs it of the human element from it.

The following are some questions that as math teachers we often hear ourselves asking:
“Why can’t such a simple thing as this be understood by these children?”
“How can they misunderstand a basic fundamental thing as this?”
“I have taught this so systematically, so they have to understand it or they should have understood it, isn’t it?”

But can understanding be ensured? What we can do is to facilitate the child’s understanding by providing a variety of inputs.

Let me share with you my experience in class V.

what-is-maths-2 Topic – perimeter, area and volume
The concepts were taught practically, i.e., children measured various things to determine these properties and learnt the formulae, then they also successfully completed exercises that suitably applied the various formulae.

The children also independently concluded that the perimeter is the measure of one dimension, i.e., linear; area is the measure of two dimensions; and volume is the measure of three dimensions.

Try this activity in your class.
Objects required: match boxes
Quantity: 6
What to do: Use three match boxes and form a cuboid by placing the match boxes vertically. Use another three match boxes to form a cuboid by placing the boxes horizontally. Ask the children to find the perimeter, area and the volume.

When I gave this activity to my class, the children measured the two cuboids and compared the measurements. They realised that although the number of boxes used to make the cuboids were the same, the measurements differed because of the way the match boxes were placed. This led to a discussion as to why there was this difference? They then arrived at the fact that horizontal and vertical placements altered the length, breadth, and height hence the measurements differed.

When they measured and calculated the perimeter, area and volume, some of them made mistakes in practically applying the formula although they could do it when given as a direct sum.

Here is when the question “I have taught this so systematically, so they have to understand it or they should have understood it, isn’t it?” surfaced and hit me hard.

They could calculate the measurements perfectly when given a sum and asked to do it on paper, but in this situation although they knew the formula, some of them were unable to apply it to the given situation.

Somewhere in the process of teaching there is a gap between theory and practice. We as math teachers should strive to bridge this gap to enable better understanding and application. This will foster confidence and logical thinking in children as that is what the subject represents.

We have to build a rich vocabulary in children from their formative years of schooling. This will strengthen their foundation of mathematics and will help them as they reach higher classes. They need to understand how to express mathematical ideas in a variety of ways that reflects the way numbers are used in daily life as well as in learning.

what-is-maths-1 Enrichment of vocabulary is vital even when basic concepts are taught.
Take a simple example. 2 + 3 = 5. This should not end with a few more examples of other numerals.

The same concept can be taught with a variety of instructions such as

  1. How much is this? (show them 3 objects)
    How much is this? (show them 2 objects)
    If you put together these, how many will it make?
  2. If you take 3 objects and 2 more again, then how many objects will you have now?
  3. I have 3 objects and if Raj gives me 2 more, then how many will they make?
  4. We can use a variety of verbal examples with children within the class itself and organise an activity with other numbers to illustrate addition and subtraction.

We can use a variety of expressions like put together, count how many; how many do we have altogether; how many more do we need to make it a particular number; what is the result of taking away this number from the other; what kind of number will you get if you take away this number from that; will it be an odd number or an even number; two digit or a single digit number? These questions will get children to think, which is essentially what math is. Can we take away 12 from 5? If no what is the reason?

Standards III, IV and V are the formative stages where children are slowly switching from the concrete to the abstract stage and these strategies will ensure concrete understanding of concepts. Mathematical concepts can be successfully built with proper usage of vocabulary. Math and language are like fraternal twins. They appear non-related but they are interlinked. If math is the ladder on which we have to assist children to climb, then the rungs of this ladder are made up of words.

When verbal variety is used from the primary level, then the higher abstract concepts such as algebra will become easier for them to handle.

The author is with the AV Education Society in Bangalore. She can be reached at [email protected].

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