Scroll for more

Math: Why doesn’t yours look like mine?

Wendy Ward Hoffer, PEBC Senior Director of Content Development and Innovation

Dear Parents,

I know you have been wondering why our math does not look like your math. When you and I were kids, accurate and quick fact fluency was enough to deliver A’s on our report cards. Math has moved on: now, instead of merely memorizing multiplication tables, students are expected to know what multiplication means and use more than one strategy to solve, then explain their thinking to peers and teachers. Let’s talk about why that is and how parents can help.

Why did math change?

In addition to meeting the worthy target of being quick at computation, our students are now expected to understand the meaning of these operations. When we know why or how a mathematical idea works, we are better prepared to remember and reapply that concept in a novel situation. Learners who understand conceptually are prepared to describe the reasonableness of an answer, able to identify errors, and can better avoid getting shortchanged at the grocery store.

With the goal of mathematical understanding, teachers invite learners to show and talk about their thinking in various ways. We ask young mathematicians to represent their mathematical ideas in words, pictures, numbers and with manipulatives, because if one truly understands, she or he is able to work flexibly between various representations. There is still a right answer, but there are many ways to show a solution.

In addition to targeting conceptual understanding, we now ask learners to work collaboratively on challenging problems, delving at times into unfamiliar mathematical territory. In these situations, students have opportunities to apply their background knowledge, cooperate with peers, test their stamina and persevere in the face of difficulties. These invitations to productive struggle ask learners to think in new ways and can solidify concepts more deeply than when time is spent on rehearsal of a taught procedure.

How can parents help?

Raising modern mathematicians asks a whole new set of strategies from parents. Sure, we can still check their homework and ask about the quiz, but what if we are confused, too? Here are some ideas to try:

  • Become the learner: Invite you child to teach you the math they are exploring at school. If you don’t quite understand, ask them questions. If you are still confused, ask the teacher for resources to support you.
  • Suspend disbelief: While the format or content may look unfamiliar, remember the goal of developing proficient problem solvers who know how to make meaning.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset: Compliment effort and perseverance, rather than perfect scores or right answers. Remind your child (and yourself) that understanding takes time and effort.
  • Stay positive: Even if tempted to complain about the curriculum or assessments, save that for adult audiences. With your student, stay curious: what can we learn from this challenge?
  • Learn more math: there are an abundance of online resources for learning math through progressive approaches. Ensmarten yourself!

You are an important ally in your child’s education. Understanding and embracing new developments in math instruction show your learner that you are ready and able to change with the times, and that you are behind her all the way into the future.


Hoffer works with math and science teachers at all levels to promote student thinking and understanding in their content areas. She travels both across Colorado and nationally to facilitate professional learning and coach teachers interested in elevating their STEM pedagogy. Hoffer is the author of Science as Thinking (Heinemann, 2009), Minds on Mathematics (Heinemann, 2012), and Developing Literate Mathematicians (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2016), and Cultivating STEM Identities (Heinemann, 2016).

To learn more about teaching math for understanding, check out Hoffer’s upcoming Institutes and her book Minds on Mathematics

See Wendy Ward Hoffer in person at a PEBC event


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons