“Because” is not an answer!

elinblog“Auntie E! Because is not an answer!” my 3-year old niece shouted in my ear. We were on a nature walk in the mountains and she had been bombarding me with question after question. “Why are there pine needles on the ground?” “Why is this rock gray?” “Why does Sugar (my dog) like to run so much?” I was tired of explaining, so finally I replied with the standard, “Because, I said so!” Oops!! Did I give the wrong answer! Upon returning, I told my sister what my niece had said. She replied, “I’ve been encouraging her to be inquisitive; I want to foster her curiosity. I have told her never to accept ‘because’ as an answer. That is why she responded the way she did.” I enjoyed the visit, even though by the time they left I was exhausted from answering (to the best of my ability) endless questions. But… I have to admit, my niece was on to something.

I reflect on this memory because, as I start a new journey as a Research Associate at the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education, my job requires that we (my colleagues and I) seek to find answers to the “whys?” of children’s mathematics. Thinking back to my days as a second grade teacher, I struggled when it came to teaching my students how to add and subtract two and three digit numbers. I would begin by having them using base-ten blocks, building the numbers and exchanging tens for ones so they could add or subtract. Then, we would move on to the standard algorithm.

It was frustrating that my students could not explain why the algorithm worked or they made errors that revealed they had little understanding of number sense. Even worse, they would tell me, “Because I just do this (the algorithm).” Ugh, the dreaded, “Because!”  Why weren’t they getting it? Why were my lessons not effective? Why? Why? Why? Just like my niece, I was curious and wanted the answer to, “Why”?

Here at the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education, my team and I are investigating how children come to learn numbers and construct additive concepts. We are specifically studying the work of Dr. Les Steffe and the research he conducted on children’s counting types. The more I read, the more I realize that there is much more to students developing number sense than I had ever imagined. Also, the more I read, the more questions I have!  I am confident that the work we are doing will help me, and eventually other educators, understand how students construct their knowledge of mathematics.  More importantly, I am confident that we will find ways to help students enjoy the experience of engaging in rich mathematical tasks that help construct their understanding. So, as I embark on this new journey, I remember the lesson my niece taught me…  “Because” is not an answer, but “Why?” is a very good question to ask!

7 Responses to “Because” is not an answer!

  1. This resonates with me as a previous second grade teacher, I use to do the same exact thing with the base ten blocks and then move to the standard algorithm. In previous years, we would just explain the steps in the algorithm, but never really had students learn what each number really mean, whether we were adding a certain amount of tens or hundreds, we just thought them the procedure. I am looking forwarding to reading more information as to the “why?”

    • Thanks Donna! I hope you will continue to follow the blog and share with teachers. We are working with kindergarten students and looking into how they construct their understanding of number. Learning lots! Stay tuned!

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