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.

A widespread problem at the secondary level is addressing basic skills deficiencies – gaps from elementary school. For example, I often encounter students in algebra 1 or even higher level math who cannot compute problems like 5÷2. Often the challenges arise from learned helplessness developed over time.

How do we address this in the time allotted to teach a full secondary level math course? We cannot devote class instruction time to teach division and decimals. If we simply allow calculator use we continue to reinforce the learned helplessness.

I offer a 2 part suggestion.

Periodically use chunks of class time allocated for differentiation. I provide a manilla folder to each student (below left) with an individualized agenda (below right, which shows 3 s agendas with names redacted at the top). Students identified through assessment as having deficits in basic skills can be provided related instruction, as scheduled in their agenda. Other students can work on identified gaps in the current course or work on SAT problems or other enrichment type of activities.

Provide instruction on basic skills that is meaningful and is also provided in a timely fashion. For example, I had an algebra 2 student who had to compute 5÷2 in a problem and immediately reached for his calculator. I stopped him and presented the following on the board (below). In a 30 second conversation he quickly computed 4 ÷ 2 and then 1 ÷ 2. He appeared to understand the answer and this was largely because it was in a context he intuitively understood. This also provided him immediate feedback on how to address his deficit (likely partially a learned behavior). The initial instruction in a differentiation setting would be similar.