How to Give Your Child Real Life Math Homework Help

Thinking and analyzing are the important skills children learn in math. Jamie Grill/JGI via Getty Images

One of the most common complaints about math homework that parents hear from their children is "I am never going to use this in real life."  You probably made that same complaint when you were in school and found yourself struggling with your math homework.

You may find that you do not using specific algebraic algorithms you complained about in school in real life. You may wonder - if all anyone is to learn from their math and STEM classes is a specific set of skills, and these are skills that can be performed by calculators and computer modeling software, why do today's schools continue to bother with these challenging subjects at all?

If you are asking this question as an adult, you are not alone.  Andrew Hacker, a political science professor from Queens University, New York published an opinion piece in The New York Times in 2012 detailing the view that since many people aren't using the specific algorithms and rote memorization they learned in challenging STEM classes, we shouldn't waste our time forcing all high schoolers to learn the material.

If the reason why schools are focusing so much on STEM is because learning advanced math and science is all about memorizing formula and facts, Hacker's view would have a much greater following. I believe that Hacker's view is outdated, and he hasn't kept up with the changes in education.

Instead, educators and policy makers realized that with the constant change being brought to the workplace with technology, we need a workforce of people who are able to think through and deeply understand how math and science actually work.

Many of the recent educational reforms, including Common Core State Standards, the Next Gen Science Standards, and the push for teaching STEAM rather than garden variety STEM all emphasize problem-solving over simple computation.

This is important to keep in mind when you are helping your child with their homework.

You want your child to be able to solve all kinds of problems, not just recite facts and formulas. While your child will still need to be familiar with math facts and formulas, the real value in quality STEM education comes from developing top-notch problem-solving skills.

How To Approach Math With  A Real-Life Problem Solving Strategy

These four steps are adapted from Conrad Wolfram's 2010 TED talk. Wolfram is the director of Wolfram-Alpha, a mathematical company that creates computational products, such as the software program Mathematica. Wolfram himself has advocated for increased focus on problem-solving over computation in schools.

Step 1 - Identify The Question You Wish To Answer  

Real life is full of situations that you have to understand what it is you are trying to solve for in order to solve for it. Whether you are increasing a recipe size, deciding how much paint to buy to paint your home, or what cell phone plan is the best deal, you need to stop and think abut what it is you are trying to solve for.

This is why there are more story problems in your child's math homework than you had when you were in school. Since the focus is now on problem solving, homework and assignments try to simulate real life problems rather than only asking students to perform an algorithm.

Step 2- Decide How To Represent The Problem Mathematically

In step 1, you identified the question. Now use algebra skills to write a mathematical statement to find the missing information. X is usually used to represent the missing information that you are trying to solve for. Look at the other pieces of information you have to determine where they go in any formula you have, or place them in a formula in which they relate to one another.

You may wish to write down each piece of information you were given with a problem and then write down which variable it would represent. An example for a simple volume of a rectangular prism (box) is given below:

  • 5=length
  • 3=height
  • 2= width
  • ?=X

Then arrange the information into a formula or algorithm that fits the information. The example information would be X=5x3x2.

Step 3 - Perform The Calculation

This should be the easiest part of the problem. This is just a question of following the steps necessary to solve.

Conrad Wolfram stated that this step is the one step that workers need to spend the least amount of time learning about. In workplace environments, workers will most likely use calculators or computers to perform this step. Wolfram believes the other steps need to be emphasized in school, as the thinking and understanding needed to decide what questions to as and how to analyze results require human thinking skills.

If you aren't sure how to perform a calculation, there are several free math problem solvers available on the internet. Look for one that shows the steps used, so that your child can see how to perform a calculation in the future. One such calculator can be found at Conrad Wolfram's site, WolframAlpha.com.

Step 4 - Check To Make Certain The Answer You Found Answers Your Original Question

This goes beyond double checking your calculation. Really look at the answer. Is it in the same unit of measurement as what you were hoping to look for? Does the size of the number seem to make sense for what you are looking for? Use this information to adjust your calculation, or complete any other steps you uncovered.

This process of  problem solving is useful beyond math and science classes. Really this process could be distilled further to defining a problem, deciding how to solve a problem, taking the steps to solve a problem, and then checking to see if the problem is solved. When worded in this way the process can be applied to almost any issue, whether it is school work, improving a business, or designing a product to help customers. Teaching your child this approach to solving problems will help them in today's schools and in their futures.

 Hacker, A. (2012, July 28). Is Algebra Necessary? Retrieved March 30, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?_r=4 

 Wolfram, C. (2010, November 23). Conrad Wolfram’s TED Talk: “Stop Teaching Calculating, Start Teaching Math”. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from http://blog.wolfram.com/2010/11/23/conrad-wolframs-ted-talk-stop-teaching-calculating-start-teaching-math/ 

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