Math is a language with words and other symbols that also makes sense of the world around us. We consume and know more math than we realize or allow ourselves credit for.

When buying the latest iteration of an iPhone, we may call forth algebra. How much will you pay if you buy an iPhone for $1000 and pay $80 a month for service? Well, that depends on how many months you will use this iteration before moving on to the next iPhone. The number of months is unknown so algebra gives us a symbol to represent this unknown number of months, x (or n or whichever letter you want).

Just as there is formal and informal English (or other language), we can engage algebra formally or informally. You don’t need to write an equation such as y = 1000 + 80x to figure out how much you will pay. You can do this informally, compute 80 times 10 months + 1000 on the calculator. Then try 80 times 12 months etc.

Math provides us a means of organizing and communicating ideas that involve quantities like the total cost for buying an iPhone.

The difficulty in learning math is that it is often taught out of context, like a secret code. In contrast, a major emphasis in reading is comprehension through meaning, such as activating prior knowledge (see below).

In fact, math absolutely can and, in my view, should be taught by activating prior knowledge. My approach is to work from where the student is and move towards the “mathy” way of doing a problem.

Without meaning, students are mindlessly following steps, not closer to making sense of the aspects of the world that involve numbers.

In working with students, parents and IEP teams, I find that there is an assumption that math at some point, possibly beyond arithmetic, is simply a science fiction movie that is minimally related to real life. I hear from students as well as adults, statements like, “algebra, when are we ever going to use it?” My response is, ALL THE TIME!

The math we often present in school is a “mathy” version of the math we encounter in life. For example, the top photo below shows a pizza menu and a situation that is realistic. The calculator screen shot below the menu shows how we likely would solve the problem using a calculator on our phone.

Below is the same type of problem, but solved using “mathy” math. How many of us (besides me) are doing this at the pizzeria?

The point is, we engage in algebra but maybe do not use all the symbols and vocabulary of algebra, e.g. when we typed in 2.25 repeatedly in our calculator, we were working with the math term “slope.”

This has implications for secondary students whose post-secondary plans do not include college. If the math class is teaching “mathy” math but you want your student to learn math as it is used in real life, then an alternative math course is needed. This could be addressed through the IEP.

I am rolling out a series of videos on math topics from middle school and algebra 1. Here is a link to the folder with the accompanying handouts. This post will be updated periodically.

Let me know if your school is covering a topic that is challenging and students would benefit from an alternative presentation. I will see what I can do. The links to the videos are listed below the photo.

A student reported to our schools math lab where I reside. He had a handout on proportions shown in the photo below and stated that he didn’t know what to do.

I find that in the vast majority of situations like this the student lacks the conceptual understanding of the topic. As is typically the case, I started my sessions with the student by focusing on something he more intuitively understood. Teens know money, phones, games, music and food.

In this case I started by showing him a photo on my phone shrunk then enlarged the photo and talked about how I could double the size of the photo. We talk about what doubling means then I show him a handout with the photo in two sizes (below).

I explained that the small photo was 3×2 inches and that I wanted to enlarge it. The bottom of the big photo is 6″ but I needed to figure out the height (vertical length) which is marked with an X.

I had him figure out the height (4). Then I explained that proportional means the shape is the same but bigger or smaller. In this case both the side and bottom were multiplied by 2. Then I showed him the “mathy” way of doing the problems. This progressed towards the handout he brought into math lab. By the end he was doing the proportions independently.

A reader asked about an algebra 2 problem and shared (below) his effort to cut up the math into bite-sized pieces. I greatly appreciate his effort because he is trying to meet student needs. While this post is very “mathy” I want to make a couple of points to the readers. First, I wrote out a detailed response (2nd photo below). Second, in both of our efforts we attempted unpack as much as possible. This is what our students need. Also, the reader is developing his ability to do this unpacking and if he continues he will become increasingly more adept at this skill (growth mindset). That means his future students will benefit!

In general math is taught by focusing on the steps. Conduct a Google search for solving equations and you will see the steps presented (below). You need a video to help your student understand solving and you typically get a presenter standing at the board talking through the examples. (I’ve posted on my approach to solving equations.)

When the math is taught through the skill approach the student may be able to follow the steps but often does not understand why the steps work (below). The brain wants information to be meaningful in order to process and store it effectively.

To help flesh this situation out consider the definitions of concept and skills (below). Concept: An idea of what something is or how it works – WHY. Skill: “Ability” to execute or perform “tasks” – DOING.

Here is how the concept first approach can play out. One consultation I provided involved an intelligent 10th grader who was perpetually stuck in the basic skills cycle of math (the notion that a student can’t move on without a foundation of basic skills). He was working on worksheet after worksheet on order of operations. I explained down and monthly payments then posed a situation shown at the top of the photo below. I prompted him to figure out the answer on his own. He originally forgot to pay the down-payment but then self-corrected. Then I showed him the “mathy” way of doing the problem. This allowed him to connect the steps in solving with the steps he understood intuitively, e.g. pay the $1,000 down payment first which is why the 1000 is subtracted first. Based on my evaluation the team immediately changed the focus of this math services to support algebra as they realized he was indeed capable of doing higher level math.

Are you a parent of a student with special needs who is struggling with a math topic? Are you a teacher figuring out how to differentiate for a particular student on a math topic? Pose your question and I will offer suggestions. Share your question via email or in a comment below. I will respond to as many as I can in future mailbag posts.

Here is a topic multiple educators and parents ask about:

I don’t want my child to be stuck in a room. He needs to be around other students.

Randy:

Often we view situations in a dichotomous perspective. Inclusion in special education is much more nuanced.

In math if a student cannot access the general curriculum or if learning in the general ed math classroom is overly challenging then the student likely will not experience full inclusion (below) but integration (proximity).

For example, I had an algebra 1 part 1 class that included a student with autism. He was capable of higher level algebra skills but he would sit in the classroom away from the other students with a para assisting him. Below is a math problem the students were tasked with completing. Below that is a revised version of the problem that I, as the math teacher created, extemporaneously for this student because the original types of math problems were not accessible to him (he would not attend to them).

I certainly believe in providing students access to “non-disabled peers” but for students who are more severely impacted I believe this must be implemented strategically and thoughtfully. Math class does not lend itself to social interaction as well as other classes. If the goal is to provide social interaction perhaps the student is provided math in a pull-out setting and provided push-in services in other classes, e.g. music or art.

Here are the details of example of a push-in model I witnessed that had mixed effectiveness. A 1st grader with autism needed opportunities for social interaction as her social skills were a major issue. She was brought into the general ed classroom during math time and sat with a peer model to play a math game with a para providing support. The game format, as is true with most games, involved turn-taking and social interaction. The idea is excellent but the para over prompted which took away the student initiative. After the game the general ed teacher reviewed the day’s math lesson with a 5-8 minute verbal discussion. The student with autism was clearly not engaged as she stared off at something else.

Simplifying expressions (see photo below) is one of the most challenging algebra tasks for many students receiving special education services. A major problem is that it is typically presented as symbol manipulation…addressed in very symbolic form.

My approach is to make math relevant and more concrete. Below is a scaffolded handout I use to help unpack the concept. In the handout I start with items the student intuitively understands, tacos and burritos or tacos and dollar bills. In the top left of this handout the student is asked how many tacos he or she has. 3 tacos eventually is written as 3T. See next photo to see how the handout is completed as NOTES for the students.

As I work with the problems below I remind the student that the “T” stands for taco so “3T” stands for 3 tacos. This takes the student back to a more concrete understanding of what the symbols mean.

To address negatives I use photos of eating a taco or burrito. “-2T” is eating 2 tacos.

So “3T – 2T” means I have 3 tacos and ate 2. I have 1 taco left… 1T. For students who may need an even more concrete representation, use actual tacos or other edible items.