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Performance vs. Understanding

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

People who know me know that I love what I do, so they often will tell me about their child’s math abilities. They will say their kid is horrible at math or that they are a math whiz. I always tell them that I would have to work with them to tell you what I think, regardless of what grades their child is getting.

This sometimes confuses parents and at times I have even sensed some defensiveness or irritation after I share that comment. Especially from parents of kids who are making good grades….they say “Well they are in advanced classes and have all As, so they are good at math!” I ask…good at understanding math or good at performing math? Because there is a difference.

On the other hand, I have often worked with students who I was told were struggling or who had been labeled “low students.” Often, these students know a lot more than people give them credit for. My “struggling” students often think deeply and if math is not taught in flexible ways, they assume their thinking is wrong when really it wasn’t…they might just need some help organizing their ideas and learning how to ask questions!

Our standards are written to list skills that students should master by the end of the grade. We often assess by how they perform…but not how they understand. I don’t care about what a kid can PERFORM. I care about what they understand. If students UNDERSTAND, they will consistently PERFORM well. Just because a student can PERFORM, does not mean they UNDERSTAND.

I honestly think the reason behind this is the whole standardized test culture. We have focused so long on answer getting that we don’t always take the time to ask the follow up questions to make sure the conceptual understanding is also there. Whenever a student gives you an answer, follow up with “Why?” or “How do you know?” If they can’t get to the answer or are unsure of where to start, simply asking “what are you thinking?” can give you lots of insight into a student’s understanding. You can’t assess understanding thru tests alone. You have to talk to kids.

When kids UNDERSTAND math, they LOVE math. Or at least like it! I have not met one kid yet that I couldn’t turn…no matter how much they hated math before working with me. If we focus on what kids UNDERSTAND, they will be able to PERFORM. Focus on what matters!

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