Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Teaching binary math to third-graders

File under: Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:54 pm.

A few weeks ago, TangoMan from Gene Expression sent me this fascinating description of a teacher’s use of the Socratic method to teach binary math to schoolchildren. It’s too interesting to excerpt; read the whole thing.

I don’t teach math to little kids very often, but I’ll have to keep this in mind if I ever get back into math mentoring. One thing that came to mind in reading this page: this is the answer to the inane claim that the only alternative to teaching little kids boring drill-type math that will surely turn them off the subject forever, is to gloss over the boring routine stuff and give them calculators while they’re still at the age where they’re liable to chew on them. The kids in this link learned some real math, and had fun doing it.


  1. However, if teachers are inclined to adopt this method they have to have mastery of the subject matter, and further, they have to know how to think about the math incorrectly, so that they can identify the likely thought processes of the students and then socratically guide them away from error and towards the right method by asking the right questions. There’s no teacher’s guide for this and if someone majored in Math Education rather than Mathematics, then I have reservations about their ability to pull this off.

    I do however think that this lesson really sticks with the students for it isn’t about memorization but it’s about thinking mathematically and understanding what they’re doing.

    I wonder what teachers would say to a choice between less content with greater comprehension versus more content (w/ lot’s of that time taken up by review) and less comprehension?

    - TangoMan — 2/12/2005 @ 8:21 pm

  2. fascinating technique ! really cool to read about.

    - Suresh — 2/12/2005 @ 8:49 pm

  3. Actually, TangoMan, I’d be happy to see a grade three teacher with a degree in math education. Not as rigorous as a degree in math, to be sure, but how many grade three teachers have any background in math? (Judging from what I’ve seen of math for elementary school teachers classes - none.) The best elementary school math teacher I ever had was my grade six teacher, who later told me (when I was in high school) that she’d never been any good at math. The difference between her and any number of grade school teachers who were never any good at math, is that this teacher made a point of learning the subject and learning about innovative ways to teach it and get her students interested.

    Regarding content versus comprehension - as a math teacher who feels rushed through a curriculum, I’d choose comprehension, no contest. “More content” typically takes the form of “here are more types of questions to memorize”, and that’s not math. My students are often surprised to learn that I haven’t memorized any of the material I teach them. (I remember much of it, but there’s a difference. Kind of like how I remember that the past tense of the verb ‘run’ is ‘ran’ - not something I’ve committed to memory, just a part of my life.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 2/13/2005 @ 10:14 am

  4. Happy Valentine’s Day

    - Ronald — 2/14/2005 @ 4:07 am

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