Are your kids struggling to grasp challenging concepts in math?

Many students struggle due to a lack of number sense—the ability to use a variety of strategies to solve math problems.      

And without this ability to think about mathematics in flexible and creative ways, your kids may never be able to truly understand math, instead relying on ineffective practices such as memorization and excessive repetition just to “get by.”

Number sense can be thought of as “having an intuitive relationship with numbers” says Lisa Wilson Carboni of UNC’s School of Education. She believes that students with a deep understanding of math know more than how to use a formula or calculate an answer—they know how to think and reason mathematically, perform mental calculations, use a variety of strategies, make reasonable estimations, justify solutions, and apply their skills to complex situations that relate to real life.

So, how can you help your kids develop number sense? You can start by providing them with opportunities to solve problems in a variety of flexible and creative ways.

One focus that I implement daily with my students is learning to calculate mentally by solving mental math strings. These mental math strings force students to make five mental computations to arrive at the solution. Students are forced to move away from using procedural mathematics, and towards thinking more creatively about mathematics.  I often do “call-outs” such as “What is “the square of 6?”, “What is 0.35 in percent form?”, “What is the sum of 128 and 9?" 

Another activity for developing number sense is group work where students have the opportunity for mathematical discourse and exposure to different ways of solving problems. Teachers can help students learn to make these connections by having students share their approaches. 

By discussing with problem-solving strategies with students, they learn to evaluate their own reasoning and to justify their solutions. It also provides you with invaluable formative assessment of your students’ strengths, weaknesses, misunderstandings, misconceptions, and content knowledge.

Providing your students with opportunities to solve a variety of estimation problems is another strategy for building creative problem solving and a deeper understanding of mathematics. Estimation problems are a quick easy way to provide students with creative problem-solving activities. I bring in containers of different candies and have students estimate how many are in the container. Oftentimes, students begin simply by guessing but eventually, they begin to use a variety of strategies to help make a more precise estimation, especially when the student with the most precise answer wins a prize.

If your goal is to prepare your students to use math in the real world, then relying on stand-alone problems is not an option. Kids need to be exposed to solving math problems in a variety of flexible and creative ways in order to develop number sense and truly grasp mathematics.

By Sheila Gfell