What counts as a math question? (And how early do we set the tone?)

Griffin (7) and I had been talking math for a few minutes. Tabitha (5) wanted in on the action.

Tabitha: Ask me a math question.

Me: OK. You, me, Mommy and Griffy are riding in a car…

T: No! Like a math class question. Like 3+3=4.

Me: OK. What’s 2+3

T: (quickly) 4?

Me: No.

T: 6?

Me: No.

T: 5?

Me: You’re guessing…If you had 2 prize tickets at the arcade and Griffy had 3, how many would you have together?

T: (turns around, thinks quietly for a few seconds, fingers twitching) 5.

Me: Yes, that’s right. Nice. I could really see you were thinking there. So because of that, 2+3 is 5.

T: I said five!

Tabitha is five years old. She was in half-day pre-K, starting full day Kindergarten in the fall. This child has no personal experience with “math class”. And already, she has the sense that a question about a situation in her real life isn’t a math class question. There are two likely culprits here.

(1) Arthur.

Tabitha loves her morning Arthur fix. Lots of school scenes there, and I haven’t watched too closely, but I’m guessing that modeling reform mathematics pedagogy is hardly top of the agenda for the writing team.

(2) Her brother

This boy looks all sweetness and innocence. But he’s learned what “math class” is from personal experience. And he holds tremendous influence in Tabitha’s world.


I get the last laugh. Notice that Tabitha objected that I was setting up a question that wasn’t a math class question. She didn’t claim I wasn’t setting up a math question.

I may not have gotten to teach these little guys’ math classes. But you better believe I’m their primary math teacher.

And parents? Each of you can be your kid’s primary math teacher. Talk math with them.


12 responses to “What counts as a math question? (And how early do we set the tone?)

  1. I love the blog and have been reading for quite some time. However, I think you are wrong about Arthur. While Mr. Ratburn may be written (at times) to be a typical teacher, the show does a decent job at portraying thinking about “kid” issues. That said, Arthur is not a math show. For that, Cyberchase can fit the bill.

  2. Marshall: Ha! For the record, the only complaint I have lodged about Arthur is that he has been complicit in preparing my daughter for the ugly fact that math class will not relate to quantitative situations that are real to her; it will be about abstract facts. And as such, he’s a stand in for a hundred cultural artifacts; Richard Scarry, The Berenstain Bears, et al. I have no beef with any of these. I’m just trying to trace the origins of my daughter’s understanding of what school math is before she has been to school.

    Thanks for reading. And thanks for sticking up for the little guy. I really should pick on someone my own size.

    I know of CyberChase, but have not watched it. Does it include classroom scenarios? My concern is not that Tabitha thinks math isn’t useful in her life (she’s got me for that!), it’s that she thinks (mostly correctly, I might add) that math class is different. How does she know this?

    • Cyberchase has no classroom scenarios, but plenty of pseudo-contexts for using mathematics. However, Sid the Science Kid does a great job for classrooms (pre-school no less). It is mainly focused on science (Earth science and Biology usually) and not really mathematics.

      Depending upon the books you read to/for Tabitha, she could be picking up some ideas from those. There are just a lot of “norms” out there to be absorbed unfortunately.

  3. Cyberchase does a decent job. I watched it and Arthur when I was younger.

    I am very interested in the idea of talking math with my children. (Although I’m not even married, haha.) I had always planned to read to my kids as my parents read to me and from your posts (and others) it would seem that I need to pay just as much attention to doing math with them at a young age. But I’m not sure if I know how! It was never modeled for me. (Not a knock on my parents at all–they did a wonderful job teaching me as a kid.)

    So really my question is, what does it look like to talk math with your kids? You’ve given us one example. What are other ways?

  4. @iamtaylorseries: Ask @mathfour (Bon Crowder at mathfour.com) regarding teaching your children math. She promotes 10 min read: 10 min math at bed time.

  5. Thanks all. We seem to be split on CyberChase. I’ll have to make a point of watching a few episodes this summer.

    iamataylorseries: Since you asked, here is the collection of everything I have to say on the matter so far. In this collection, there are both more examples and some general philosophical guidelines.

    Thanks stefras for the tip on mathfour.com. There’s some good stuff there, including some research references that will be right up my alley.

  6. Here’s an example. There are 5 people in our family. If we get a pizza that has 8 slices, how can we share the pizza so that each person gets an equal amount? But you don’t present it as a problem. You just get the pizza, put it in front of everyone, they each grab a slice, now there’s only 3, and you ask, how can we share those last 3 slices so that everyone gets a fair share? Then someone points out that the 4-year-old has left the table, so it’s really only 4 people sharing 3 slices. OK, ask that question. Fractions are an awesome thing to reinforce at home. Opportunities come up all the time. Occasionally they roll their eyes at me, but I don’t let it stop me. 😉 Oh, and you ask the 4-year-old the subtraction problem at the beginning.

  7. I have not seen CyberChase but I was wondering what you thought of Team Umizoomi? I can’t remember if I shared this anecdote but my daughter – age 3 at the time – was watching an episode and the problem to be solved was that a magician got stuck in a watermelon. I remember thinking, “Who could possibly buy into this?” Then Tatiana turned away from the tv and said to me, “I remember when I was stuck in your tummy before I was born,” and looked empathetically back at the magician. It was enough to get her to buy into the premise and want to do some calculations to help Presto escape.

  8. PS I’m not suggesting that we teach our kids math by just plopping them in front of the tv. But if young children do like to watch cartoons, I’d rather have my daughter watch something that provokes a bit of thought rather than something vapid.

  9. Hmmm…I have never heard of Team Umizoomi. I can see my summer TV list is getting longer.

    Also, I would like to point out that I cannot imagine what calculations could possibly be helpful to a magician stuck inside a watermelon. Failure of imagination on my part, I’m sure.

  10. Pingback: Kindergarten addition strategies | Overthinking my teaching

  11. Pingback: Week 2 Response: Christopher Danielson | n+1

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