Counting in downtown Saint Paul

I had my first book event today—for How Many? at Subtext Books in downtown Saint Paul. Lovely people, great little independent bookstore. You should buy some books from them.

We had a small but loyal crowd that included a three-year old and an eight-year old. The three-year old was charming, as all three-year olds are, and today she answered all yes/no questions in the affirmative. She and I talked about shapes and eggs and money. It was good times.

But I really got to get into the head of the eight-year old.

We discussed the grapefruit page below, and the unsolved mystery of whether there are exactly six grapefruit—the ones we can see directly—or more than that with at least one hiding underneath, possibly reflected in the surface of the bowl.

6.jpg

We moved on to the next page, which is where the real fun began.

7

My eight-year old conversation partner looked carefully, thought for a while, and announced that there must have been more than six grapefruit on the previous page because there are more than six on this page.

I asked, “How do you know?” and it turns out he was visually pairing the grapefruit halves on this page. He used his fingers to show me the pairs he made, but he was having trouble keeping track of their number. So when he came out with more than six pairs of grapefruit halves on this page, that meant there must have been more grapefruit in the bowl.

We flipped pages back and forth several times while sorting this out, and he finally concluded that there were six grapefruit on both pages. Children rarely have math tasks that connect this way, but they expect that the tasks should connect. It was delightful to watch this expectation play out.

Next up was the avocado page.

10

He thought for a bit and decided there were “seven point five avocados”. I thought I knew how he knew—same as the grapefruit—but I asked to be sure, and I was wrong.

“Three fives is fifteen, and then divide by two.”

It took a few more exchanges to extract that dividing by two makes sense here because there should be half as many whole avocados as there are half-avocados. Of course this is brilliant and important mathematics, and it arose in the context of making sense of a meaningful counting situation. Also notable is that three fives was a fact he retrieved quickly while three fours (of grapefruit halves) did not seem to occur to him.

The lesson here is that children are brilliant. They build math out of their everyday experiences, and when you offer them opportunities they apply the math they know to make further sense of their worlds.

Another lesson is that my new book—titled How Many?—is out. The best price and free shipping are at Stenhouse.com. If you read it with children, please report back and maybe leave a review at Amazon.

 

A happy report from the field

Every once in a while, someone shares with me a lovely story of a conversation that they had with their kid that was inspired by the work on this blog. These stories are tremendously satisfying to me because they remind me that isn’t just me and my kids, and that it doesn’t just come naturally. Talking math with your kids is something you can learn.

Today’s report is from Zoe Ryder White, whom I have not met, but who heard about this site from a friend of the project, and who gave me permission to share it.

[I] used some tidbits already this morning – [My daughter] A. was making a giraffe and wanted each leg to be two wooden spools long. At first she wasn’t sure how many total she’d need, but when I asked how many a giraffe has, she quickly figured out the total was 8.

Before reading the talk math with our kids stuff I would’ve probably just said yep, you got it- but we ended up having a great conversation about all the different ways you could figure that problem out. SO FUN.

I am determined to raise a math-confident and math-curious kid. All the work you’re doing in your research is already making a concrete change! Thanks : )

That is the power of asking a follow up question. It is the power of asking, “How do you know that?”

Counting grapes

I am pretty sure I have mentioned this before, but one of my proudest achievements has been watching a “Talking Math with Your Kids” hashtag (#tmwyk) blossom on Twitter in the past few months. Now, on a nearly daily basis I (and you, if you join us over there) get to see conversational gems such as Kindergarten kids talking about Spirals and cool math prompts such as Counting Grapes.

Michael Fenton—a father and math teacher—sent this photograph into the #tmwyk world recently. Naturally, I had to talk with Tabitha and Griffin about it.

Two bowls—one with five grapes, one with eight half-grapes

The conversation with Tabitha (7 years old), I captured on video.

Here’s the transcript:

Me: Which one of these bowls has more grapes?

Tabitha: (7 years old): [points to a bowl, probably the one on the right but hard to tell] Obviously!

Me: What do you mean, ‘obviously’?

T: I mean look at this! One, two, three, four, do you mean halfs?

There is a thoughtful pause.

T: Actually…

She points to the bowl on the left.

T: Cause these are halves

Me: But how do you know that there’s more here than here?

T: Cause look.

She uses her thumb and finger to indicate that halves of grapes are getting put into pairs to make whole grapes.

T: One, two, three, four

Now she shifts to the bowl on the left and counts the whole grapes individually.

T: One, two, three, four, five.

So what do we learn?

The key moment is right here: I mean look at this! One, two, three, four, do you mean halfs? (This occurs 8 seconds into the video.)

That is when she notices—on her own—that half grapes are not worth the same as whole grapes. It is where she shifts her attention from items (of which there are 5 on the left and 8 on the right) to whole grapes (5 on the left, but only 4 on the right).

The rest is tidying up details. The learning happens in that one brief moment of insight.

Starting the conversation

Ask your own child this question when you have a spare moment. Don’t correct or interrupt. Just listen. Object if their explanations are incomplete, but otherwise just listen.

Technical notes (and acknowledgements and thanks)

This was our first video using Google Glass.

There will be many more, I am sure. I’ll write more about this in the future, and I am happy to discuss with any interested parties. (You can hit me through the About/Contact link here on the blog.)

In the meantime, I want to thank Go Kart Labs for their sponsorship and financial support. They funded most of the cost of my Google Glass through a generous donation. These folks are smart, kind and interested in the overall goal of the Talking Math with Your Kids project, which is developing a world full of intelligent, creative and curious citizens. Upstanding people who do beautiful web-design work here in Minnesota.

Days to Christmas: Place value follow up

In yesterday’s post, I told of the Christmas Countdown cube calendar, and of how Tabitha (6 years old) changed my 06 days to 6 days by removing the leading zero. I challenged readers to consider her reasons for this.

Of course I asked her. I showed her the pictures I took and asked why she had taken off the zero. Here are the results of our conversation.

Me: I’m curious about why you took off the zero.

Tabitha (6 years old): Because there aren’t sixty days until Christmas.

A new piece of research has been making the rounds in the media recently. I will write about it at length soon, but for now you just need to know that the common headline is something like, “Young children know more about place value than most people assume they do.” In particular, the research looked carefully at the partial place value knowledge children have, rather than just calling wrong answers wrong.

Helping children develop partial knowledge into better knowledge through exploring and talking is the heart of the work here at Talking Math with Your Kids. Naturally I want to explore Tabitha’s knowledge here.

I get out a piece of paper, a pen and write some numbers, asking her to tell me what they are. I write down her responses verbatim so that I can share them with you.

25

Twenty-five

52

Fifty-two

A reasonable hypothesis for Tabitha saying that “06” meant “sixty” would be that she doesn’t pay attention to the order of the digits in a number. We now know this isn’t true.

More numbers follow.

60

Sixty

06

Sixty

Now things are getting interesting. There seems to be something special about that zero out front. We do some more.

600

Six hundred

006

Six

What? I was sure she was going to say six hundred for this one.

060

Six

Hmmm….

0

Zero

00

Zero

No hesitation on this one, which surprises me. I thought she might object to two zeroes.

3

Three

30

Thirty

030

Three

At least this one is consistent with 060.

I am beginning to wonder how she will work with numbers that have zeroes in the middle of them, such as 1002. And I am curious how she will work with numbers that use the same words, but in a different order. I think of 1002 and 2001 as a good example: one thousand-two and two thousand-one. So I build up to those.

2000

Two thousand

1000

A thousand

Uh oh. I didn’t expect this. I expected one thousand, not a thousand. I have to change my examples.

3000

Three thousand

3002

Three hundred two…er…three thousand two

2003

Two hundred three

Beautiful! This is what the researchers were saying—children have partial place value knowledge. What is going on here is this: 3002 looks like 300 with a 2 at the end. This is a very common error, and it represents trying to make sense of a complicated idea.

We do only one more; I can tell she is getting tired.

4030

Seven

I cannot tell if she is being silly or serious, trying hard or being clever.

Photo Dec 22, 12 35 43 PM

So what do we learn?

Just as with learning to speak a native (or foreign) language, learning about numbers is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Children have partial knowledge that is sometimes inconsistent. Tabitha self-corrected on 3002, but not on 2003. This conversation supports her thinking about the structure of numbers. She will think about it in the future and be more prepared to pay attention to it because we talked about it. When she wants to know more, she will ask.

Starting the conversation

Children learn about numbers and language in similar ways—through exposure in their everyday environments. We read to our children to enrich their language environment, and we can expose our children to numbers to enrich their math environment. Waffles, toys and calendars are all examples of everyday objects with mathematical structure that children can play with.

Have these things available. Ask about how your children play with them. Listen to their answers. Then ask follow up questions.

 

Days until Christmas

Each day, Griffin (9 years old) has taken great joy in setting the Countdown to Christmas cube calendar the kids recently received from my father and stepmother.

On Thursday, I was doing my end-of-semester grading from home and noticed after he had left that he had neglected to set it on his way to catch the bus to school. So I did.

christmas.06

My wife got Tabitha out the door later in the morning while I was at work in my basement office.

Later, I noticed that Tabitha (6 years old) had modified it.

christmas.6

Here I will pause to give readers a day or so to consider why. What might a 6-year-old have in mind that would cause her to remove the zero from in front of the six?

I asked her about it later on and we had a lovely conversation. I’ll report on that soon.

An evening ride on the A train

I was in New York City for a conference recently. I arrived at JFK airport on a Monday evening and took public transportation into the city. I observed the following scene.

At about 8:30 p.m., a mother and her (roughly) 6-year old twin girls board the train and sit quite near me.

Mom opens the first girl’s backpack to check whether her homework has been completed.

Child 1: I did it. Oh…on that one, I forgot to write the 6.

[Child 1 proceeds to talk aloud and hold up her fingers]

These are my daughter's fingers. I did not photograph the children on the subway.

These are my daughter’s fingers. I did not photograph the children on the subway.

Child 1: Two and four is…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!

Mom checks a couple of other things and puts the materials back in Child 1’s backpack. She opens Child 2’s backpack.

Mom: Why don’t you have a math book?

Child 2: I do! It’s Go Math!

Mom: Where is it?

Child 2: At school. Teacher says it never leaves school.

Mom: So you get worksheets?

Child 2: Uh huh.

Mom: What’s the point of having a math book, then? Oh well.

She flips through the worksheets, but does not discuss their content with the children. The worksheets appear to her (and to me) to be a disconnected jumble, which the child has completed.

About ten minutes later, the girls are acting up a little bit. Nothing major, but they are getting loud and silly. They are clearly getting on Mom’s last nerve. Mom has expressed to them how tired she is.

Another ten minutes pass, with the girls just barely keeping it together. They get off the train at their stop.

So what do we learn?

A major goal of my writing here and in my book is to help parents notice opportunities to support their children’s mathematical development, and to take advantage of these opportunities.

Traditionally as parents, we look over our children’s homework and keep an eye our for errors. We help our children when they are stuck. If everything is correct and complete, we move on. All of that is good. It is important to help our children when they are stuck. It is important to check their homework. All good.

I want to point out the opportunity this mother had when her daughter was talking about the neglected six.

Child 1 said, “I forgot to put the 6,” and then demonstrated the relevant addition problem on her fingers.

One way to seize this opportunity is to say, “Oh, good! I like that you showed how you know 2 and 4 is 6. What are some other ways you can make 6?”

That conversational technique will bear fruit with kids 95% of the time. When you notice an idea, praise the child for expressing it and ask a follow-up question, the child will nearly always answer that question. If the question suggests that there are multiple answers, the child will usually keep thinking beyond their first idea.

Continuing the conversation would provide the mother in my story with two things:

(1) Increased mathematics thinking on the part of her children, and

(2) less misbehavior later on.

Yes it takes energy to carry on a conversation of any kind with your children when everyone is tired. But it takes less energy to do that than to keep them quiet when they don’t want to be.

I understand, of course, that not everyone knows how to do this. That is what we’re working on here.

Starting the conversation

This is an example of starting a conversation by listening and asking follow up questions.

Some conversations parents initiate. Others children initiate. When children initiate them, the conversation only moves forward if we listen and ask questions.

I will restate an important conversational move in this scenario:

Oh, good! I like that you showed how you know 2 and 4 is 6. What are some other ways you can make 6?