When should we introduce word problems in math?


There have always been controversial educational policies.

 

One of the most heavily debated of them all has to be associated with the question: When should we start introducing elementary school children to word problems in math?

 

The above begs the question: does the obvious difficulty with math specific word problems for elementary students stem from the fact that most children simply do not process the necessary critical thinking skills to tackle abstraction? 

 

Louis Benezet, a school superintendent in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1929, upon witnessing what he regarded as eighth graders' insufficient command of the English language, decided to do something about it.

 

His unpopular plan revolved around this concept that children in elementary school didn't have the critical thinking skills in order to truly grasp the concepts being taught. His solution? Stop teaching arithmetic to these grades altogether. Instead of wasting time and resources teaching something that they are too young to understand, he wanted teachers to spend this time teaching the students to read, reason, and "recite" or basically talk about a topic of interest for the same period of time.

 

(Benezet's reasoning was that this recitation period or time would force the children to improve their critical thinking and logical reasoning skills.)

 

Needless to say, most of peers did not agree with his plan. Teaching by "his" 3 Rs, he argued, would build upon several needed skills, such as logical reasoning and critical thinking. And the students would actually be able to learn the needed arithmetic later on and also have a better command of the English language.

 

Benezet finally managed to test out his theory in classrooms in Manchester. He chose several classrooms and instructed the teachers to only teach basic counting and measurement. The rest of the time, normally spent on mathematics, should be used on his 3 Rs. 

 

Throughout the year, he had the children's progress in the traditional classes tested, as well as in the experimental classrooms. The results were surprising to the majority of educators who had doubted Benezet's theory. The tests found that while the children from the experimental classes in grades 2 - 5 performed worse on traditional mathematic tests at the beginning of the grade 6 year, they out-performed the traditional students on the word problems that require critical thinking and common sense. Perhaps, the most shocking of the results were shown when all of the children were given the same test at the end of their 6th-grade year. When given their final test, after only one year of arithmetic lessons, the experimental classes performed just as well as the traditional students on the standard equation-based sections of the test. They also performed better than the traditional students on the word-based questions. 

 

Benezet's experiments are still referred to today by educators and parents who want to see changes made to the school systems.

 

Not saying he is right or wrong. Just throwing it out there. 

 

If you're interested in reading more about Benezet's experiment, you can find more info here.

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