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Mathnasium Offers
Workout For the Mind


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Rather than stressing memorization and repetitive exercises, the Mathnasium Method of math instruction focuses on first helping children develop an intuitive idea of how numbers work and learning how to do math mentally. Included: Some examples of Mathnasium exercises.

Larry Martinek

Larry Martinek, co-founder of the Mathnasium approach to math instruction, wants children to view doing math as a mental workout and even -- fun.

Martinek thinks children need to start their math experience by developing a Number Sense" -- an intuitive idea about how numbers work -- before tackling problems with pencil and paper. He used to visit schools to provide professional development for teachers and tutor students.

Martinek talked with Education World about his philosophy of teaching math, the Math Wars, and what should be included in a comprehensive reform of math instruction.

Education World: What inspired you to start Mathnasium?

Larry Martinek: My son, Nic, and I shared a love and passion for mathematics. During his preteen years, we began to work and develop an easy-to-follow program involving "Number Sense" to allow children to learn the way numbers work in an intuitive manner.

In 1985, with Nic's help, I published my first book, Math Tips for Parents. Over the next 15 years, we continued to refine the curriculum. By then it was enjoying increasing success in the education community.

Sadly, Nic passed in a car accident when he was 19. In 2002, three years after Nic's death, I co-founded Mathnasium, which is dedicated to helping youngsters with their math skills, in his memory.

EW: What distinguishes your approach to teaching math from other approaches?

Martinek: Instead of relying on traditional rote memorization and repetitive exercises, we focus on helping children build deep mathematical understanding through the fundamental experience of working with numbers. We teach children to work with numbers beyond written exercises, which helps them to access Number Sense -- an important step before they can apply their understanding on paper.

When students can answer questions mentally-- for example, how much is 99 plus 99 plus 99 -- without using pencil and paper -- they are very likely doing well in math. When students struggle with these questions, it is a warning sign that they may need help outside of the classroom. Also, students who can do the questions at and above their grade level may need a more challenging experience.

EW: As you note on your Web site, the debates about how to teach math have been raging for more than 50 years in the U.S. How would you characterize the current approach to math education?


"I see so many students come through our doors with an Im no good at mathI hate math attitude. Kids dont really hate math. What they hate is being, frustrated, embarrassed, and confused by math."

Martinek: The Math Wars" of the past 50 years, fueled by a persistent skills gap in Americas classrooms, have created the need for dramatic change in what is taught in the mathematics classroom and how it is delivered. Traditional math, New Math, back-to-basics, and reform math have all found a home in various schools as the what" to teach. Explicit Instruction, Socratic Questioning, and Discovery Learning are the primary modes in use for the how to deliver it."

EW: What needs to happen in classrooms for U.S. students to make significant gains in mathematics skills? What needs to happen in teacher education programs?

Martinek: The world is becoming more technology-driven, and mathematics is the core of this evolution. To remain competitive in todays global marketplace, the U.S. must make math a priority. The recent findings of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel -- a panel of recognized math education experts appointed by the president -- are an important first step. The panel recommended that schools present elementary and middle school math in a better-defined manner, in contrast to the jumble of strategies now used in states and school districts.

I have long been concerned about the problem of algebra too soon," that is, the practice of placing students in college prep first-level algebra before they have the prerequisite knowledge necessary for success in the course. Passing grades in previous courses, even As and Bs, do not guarantee that individual students have this prerequisite knowledge.

The mathematics curriculum in grades preK-8 should be streamlined and should emphasize a well-defined set of the most critical topics in the early grades. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel made three specific recommendations for preparation for success in first-year algebra:

  • Fluency with whole numbers, including effortless recall of basic facts
  • Fluency with fractions, including decimals and percents
  • Fluency in particular aspects of geometry and measurement

"Instead of relying on traditional rote memorization and repetitive exercises, we focus on helping children build deep mathematical understanding through the fundamental experience of working with numbers."

The Mathnasium Method of teaching represents a focused synthesis of the best practices of all the players in the Math Wars" as well as a kids-eye-view of how to teach children math in a way that makes sense to them.

EW: I understand you used to visit schools to tutor students and do professional development with teachers. What are some strategies/techniques you use to explain important math concepts to students?

Martinek: Language is an integral part of the way I teach. I teach students the meaning of root words in the mathematics context. Also, I teach them how to explain their thought process and reasoning verbally.

For example, percent is taught as meaning per CENT, for each 100." Using this definition, 7 percent of 300 easily can be seen to be: 7 for the first 100, 7 for the second 100, and 7 for the third 100. So 7 + 7 + 7 = 21.

I see so many students come through our doors with an Im no good at mathI hate math" attitude. Kids dont really hate math. What they hate is being, frustrated, embarrassed, and confused by math.

Being successful is the best way to overcome these problems. You have to find the right starting point through diagnostic testing and build confidence and selfesteem through successful encounters and interactions with carefully selected materials, which is what we do at Mathnasium.

EW: What can teachers do to help prevent students from being intimidated by math?

Martinek: I think the most important aspect of teaching math is to first and foremost, get the child to stop viewing math as scary. Math can be fun! The trick is to do exercises both orally and visually, with little or no writing. Pictures can be used as visual aides. Realworld objects such as coins and blocks should be used as appropriate.

This e-interview with Larry Martinek is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Published 02/11/2009


 

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