Tag Archives: solve equations

Concepts vs Skills – Need Both

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.

calvin hobbs toast

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.

definition conceptdefinition skill

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.

solving equation with conceptual understanding first

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Conceptual Understanding Before Getting “Mathy”

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All too often math topics are introduced first with the skills and steps. This is backwards. The photo above shows how I introduced solving equations a high school student with autism using the concept as an entry point.

We discussed what was involved in buying a car, including payments (no interest) then I posed the problem seen at the top. I asked him to figure out the monthly payment. He worked out the problem, overlooking the down payment. With a minimal prompt he self corrected. I followed this by “showing him the mathy way of doing the problem.” (Seen in the bottom half of the photo). He conceptually understood why the -1,000 was the first step and x had meaning.

This is a version of CRA.

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A Game Changer for Teaching Solving Equations

Dragon Box screen shotDragon Box (link to website here) presents solving equations, proportions (and fractions and expressions) using an alternative representation and in a highly engaging game format (different platforms!).

In the photo above, the goal is to get the treasure chest by itself. To do this, the fly looking thing and the snake have to be eliminated. First eliminate the snake with the black background (a night card) by placing the other snake card on top of it (a day card). The day card snake must be placed on the right side as well. The day and night card (representing positive and negative numbers) become a circulating hurricane looking card (which represents a zero).

I used it with my 5 year old son (video here) and he could solve 2 step equations (on the game) independently within a couple hours. This is a game changer in teaching kids algebra.

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