Math enrichment – what is the value?

Another guest post by Yulia Shpilman on why we teach enrichment math and what it means to us.

When you look for additional math classes for your child, what do you look for?  We (and by we I mean Golden Key Russian School teachers) are often asked about what exactly we offer in our unique math classes and what skills we teach our students.  I think that we have not always been successful in articulating clearly and concisely what we actually do and why we do it.

Questions we get most often are: (1) Are we like Kumon? (we’re pretty much the opposite) (2) Do we teach “Russian math”? (not even sure what that is, though starting to realize people are probably referring to RSM) (3) Do we tutor kids who need help with their school math homework? (not really) (4) Do we train students for Kangaroo Math? (somewhat, in that we solve interesting problems, but that’s not the main goal of the program).

Well, what is it that we do, then? At GKRS, we invite the students to join us for enrichment math classes, and we take the word “enrichment” seriously in that we truly want the activities in the class to enrich their lives and be an enjoyable experience. That said, in our epoch of over-scheduled kids, any extracurricular activity must provide additional value beyond just pure entertainment (if you can even believe that math classes can be entertaining, which ours very much are 😊).

What we strive to teach our students, first and foremost, is the skill (and art) of problem solving.  

Why do we focus on problem solving?  Well, it’s a skill that is very broadly applicable to modern everyday life, regardless of whether you’re a mathematician, an engineer, a scientist or a writer.  All of us, on a daily basis, are faced with problems the answers to which are unknown and the approaches to solving which are undefined.  Both big societal problems like building the driver-less car, finding a cure for cancer or improving our education system, or smaller problems you might face in your job like figuring out a way to improve a production process or market something effectively on social media, don’t have a defined path to an answer.  It takes creativity, grit and a lot of trial and error to figure them out.  

If you think about it, traditional math classes in school teach the exact opposite lesson! There is always one (and only one!) correct answer, and you arrive at it by a set of predefined steps that you must memorize and then apply at just the right moment. This couldn’t be further from reality of most of today’s careers in just about any field.

But how do you become good at these skills? How do you develop creativity? How do you learn to persevere after trying several failed approaches? How do you know if your result makes sense? The answer is, of course, practice, and a lot of it, over long, continuous stretches of time.

And so, we will not guarantee that your child will win a math Olympiad or will manage to do mental math very quickly in her head (although over time, there will be improvements on these fronts also). That said, we can promise that she will learn to be excited, not scared, when she sees a new, unfamiliar problem, in math or other areas of her life. She will learn to analyze the information that she is given, think about what she might already know about it from previous experience (pattern recognition), try an approach and course-correct based on the results.  And we will argue that there’s tremendous value in that.

So back to my original question: what do you look for when you look for additional math classes for your child? I am most curious to hear from parents of elementary school children, but also from parents of older kids.

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About aofradkin

I enjoy thinking about presenting mathematical concepts to young children in exciting and engaging ways.
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4 Responses to Math enrichment – what is the value?

  1. Diana says:

    I am a mom of a second grader. She took the Kangaroo Math Exam last year and this year because I felt like since it was a global test to a large degree, she would be learning math for it on a global basis. That US math focuses way too much on computations and not thinking problems. But now that the Kangaroo is done for the year, we are looking for something else to do in math that will keep enriching her. Can you give an example of creative math problems that you work on with a 2nd grader, for example? I’m not in PA so we could not go to an enrichment class at your school, but if you ever host something online, we would be interested!

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  2. Yulia Shpilman says:

    Sure – there are many things to choose from, depending on what you’re interested in! In our math circle, we did a unit on 3d geometry. Some of our activities: exploring nets of cubes and other platonic solids (we used magformers, but you can use paper and cut out faces); drawing structures from different views and building structures when you’re given a top, side and front view; counting how many blocks are needed to build various structures; exploring what happens when you cut off a vertice off a cube in various ways. We did a unit on logic where we played various logic games such as Set and Ghost Blitz, worked on Knights and Liars problems, and did logic puzzles like Sudoku or Parks. Puzzles of all kinds are really fun – there’s a great website called Math Pickle that has really great problems. http://mathpickle.com/organized-by-grade/

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  3. yelenam says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post! In our math circle we do exactly this – problem-solving. I try to choose problems that allow for many different ways to solution, have more than one solution or no solution. It is very important to me that the problems lend themselves well to modeling with manipulatives, sketches, or role-play, not just with writing (since we have students at various stages of writing proficiency). Also, I believe introducing tough problems well outside of the school curriculum brings students together. It gives them a chance to work against a problem, instead of competing with each other.

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