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.

**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.

Inclusion is not proximity.

I introduce solving equations by building off of the visual presentation used to introduce equations. The two photos below show an example of handouts I use. Below these two photos I offer an explanation of how I use these handouts.

First I develop an understanding of a balanced equation vis-a-vis an unbalance equation using the seesaw representation.

I then explain that the same number of guys must be removed from both sides to keep the seesaw balanced.

I then apply the subtraction shown above to show how the box (containing an unknown number of guys) is isolated. I explain that the isolated box represents a solution and that getting the box by itself is called solving.

I use a scaffolded handout to flesh out the “mathy” steps. This would be followed by a regular worksheet.

I extend the solving method using division when there are multiple boxes. I introduce the division by explaining how dividing a Snickers bar results in 2 equal parts. When the boxes are divided I explain both boxes have the same number of guys.

The students are then provided a scaffolded handout followed by a regular worksheet.

This is a meaning making approach to introducing equations. I will walk through the parts shown in the photo in the space below this photo. (A revised edition of this handout will be used in a video on this topic.)

First I explain the difference between an expression (no =) and an equation (has =). An equation is two expressions set equal to each other (21 is an expression).

I then develop the idea of a balanced equation and will refer to both sides of the see saw as a prelude to both sides of the equation. I also focus on the same number of people on both sides as necessary for balance.

At this point I am ready to talk about an unknown. Here is the explanation I use with the photo shown below.

- I start with the seesaw at the top. The box has some guys in it but we don’t know how many.
- We do notice the seesaw is balanced so both sides are equal.
- This means there must be 2 guys in the box.
- I follow by prompting the students to figure out how many guys are in the box(es) in the bottom two seesaws.
- Finally, I explain that the number of guys in the box is the solution because it makes the seesaw balanced.

There are multiple instructional strategies in play.

- Connection to student prior knowledge – they intuitively understand a seesaw. This lays the foundation for the parts of an equation and the concept of equality.
- Visual representation that can be recalled while discussing the symbolic representation, e.g. x + 1 = 3
- Meaning making which allows for more effective storage and recall of information.

I have algebra students, in high school and college, who struggle with evaluating expressions like 2 – 5. This is a ubiquitous problem.

I have tried several strategies and the one that is easily the most effective is shown below. When a student is stuck on 2 – 5 the following routine plays out like this consistently.

- Me: “What is 5 – 2?”
- Student pauses for a moment, “3”
- Me: “So what is 2 – 5?”
- Student pauses, “-3?”
- Me: Yes!

I implemented this approach because it ties into their prior knowledge of 5 – 2. It also prompts them to analyze the situation – do some thinking.

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