Monday, April 4, 2011

Teaching Linear Equations and Functions

Linear "anything" can send chills down the spines of many adults.  For many students it is an exit point from mathematics.  The inability to grasp the connection between an equation and its graph can mean a student languishes in any but "maths for living" type classes.

Yet there seems to be different reasons why students don't like linear algebra and linear functions.  My top ten suspicions why students don't understand linear topics is listed below.

Mum says its hard
We should not estimate the impact we have as parents.  By placing the kernel that we found it hard, our students will have to face the likelihood that they have the potential to know more than the most respected person in their lives.  It's ok for it to conquer them because it conquered you.  As an adult it really is rather easy to learn!  Before passing on our prejudices, we need to find time to grab a text and figure it out from a worked example.  It will make you feel good and your student will benefit from someone that can help too.  Excel books can be found at booksellers for around $15 and can be a good starting point.

Girls can't do Maths, Boys can't be neat.
BS.  I don't accept this from students and nor should you.  Girls have outperformed boys for many years in mathematics, (esp. up to year 10).  We have to be careful to walk softly when girls start noticing boys and don't want the nerd slur.  Similarly, boys seem to think that sloppy work is acceptable - it's not and they can do better when monitored and prompted.  It also improves their accuracy and notation.

Lack of primary algebra & directed number knowledge
This is not a dig at primary teachers, but it is a dig at the Curriculum Council.  The lack of a syllabus has harmed education in WA and the implementation of OBE failed our students.  In saying that, the CC is trying to make amends with the new courses in senior school and if the do-gooders don't get started again, we may have some reasonable curriculum reform.  The trick will now be to get year 7 out of primary and get students into the hands of specialists in mathematics, whilst upskilling secondary teachers in ways to deal with younger students.

Lack of sufficient practice and connections to context
Many students grasp the major concepts quickly (like finding an equation for two points) but lack scaffolding in their understanding to establish lasting recall.  Those eloquent in eduspeak will know the edubabble for this concept but the idea is sound.   The motivation for this blog entry was a group of year tens currently struggling with remembering how to create a linear equation.  In after school classes we have worked to connect the idea to shooting aliens (with an equation driven gun), distance time graphs, ice cream sales (using tables and difference patterns), intersection points, changing slope, y intercepts and x intercepts over a three week period.  With a solid understanding of linear, extending concepts into quadratics and other functions is considerably simpler.  These simple (but growing in numbers - we're now over 30 students) after school classes are leaving students enthused and ready to work once classes start.

Limited value seen in abstract knowledge
Sadly, many students are unable to see value in abstract algebra in year 10 and this limits their development.  Without rudimentary skills in linear algebra much of the senior courses in mathematics are inaccessible by our students.  A lack of rote learning and a focus on problem solving has reduced the ability of students to value skills based work.

Lack of connection between reward and effort
This is a huge concern not limited to linear algebra. The year 9 C grade standard lists linear algebra requiring fluency by year 9.  If students don't meet this standard - their grade in year 10 will be a D or worse, even if developmentally they are finally able and work hard to understand abstract algebra.  This lack of reward for effort will start to be seen throughout the mathematics course if we (and our regulators) are not careful.

Poor environment to complete assignment work
Many students in low socioeconomic schools do not have home environments conducive to homework.  This is especially prevalent in at risk students.  Schools need to encourage usage of safe areas to complete such work either under punitive (which can be more socially acceptable) or extra curricular environments.

Lack of study
An average student will not gain a lasting understanding linear algebra if they do ten questions and then move to the next topic.  Given that the key concepts need some level of memorisation (how to collect like terms, establishing the equation of a line, the connection between an equation and a plane, creating ordered pairs, plotting them, difference tables etc), students needs to spend some time considering what they know and what they would like to recall freely.

Lack of in class revision
It is a topic that must be revisited over and over again throughout the year until it is as fluent as order of operations or times tables.  It is the next key plank after basic numeracy is established.

A reluctance to start early
We need to ensure that linear algebra is introduced as soon as directed number, fractions and place value beyond thousands is understood.  Those capable of dealing with abstract knowledge need it and we should not delay because heterogeneous classes typically teach to the middle.  We need to challenge ourselves and seek to find when students are capable of starting algebra and find ways to provide opportunities to these students to advance.

There we go.. It's everyone's fault - students, parents, teachers, administration, regulators.  Now let's get out there and fix it!

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