"Why am I supposed to divide here?"
August 14, 2012 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I need books that are good at explaining how to explain things to children.

I'm currently tutoring 5th graders in math and grammar, and I've found that it's really hard to break things down to make them clear to kids, when I was always pretty good at school and can't grasp why they're confused or why they have problems describing the issues they're having. Are there any good teaching books that explain how to break things down?
posted by kingfishers catch fire to Education (5 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This may be too general for your needs but my favorite is How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose. One piece from the book that is probably involved here is the realization that learners almost always go through four stages, more or less:

1. You don't know what you don't know.
2. You DO know what you don't know.
3. You know what you've learned.
4. You DON'T know what you've learned.

Experts (and that probably includes you, as an adult who was good at school teaching a 5th grader) are in category 4, and that means you have to be super-explicit about your assumptions and all the little pieces of information you take for granted when you work through things. You also have to really think through how it is you do what you do, because there is likely so much stuff you now do by habit.

One of the pieces of knowledge we almost always fail to convey, for example, is how we have synthesized lots of bits of data -- what's the structure, or the system, in which we understand this stuff? (eg, the 4 basic math functions are similar because they're all tools to solve a general class of problem, I can connect them all using sentences like "multiplication is repeated addition" or "subtraction undoes addition") We generally fail in both conveying these sorts of mental models and even that they exist at all, or that there are many different valid ways of synthesizing the same information.
posted by range at 9:24 PM on August 14, 2012

I find it is less a matter of "breaking down" a subject than it is "breaking down" the barriers to the student. "The Power of One" might not seem like a textbook on adult-child educational interaction but, in fact, it really is.

My own approach, when explaining to children, is not that different from the Professor's.

First of all, I approach children as untrained adults. Not as children, in the dismissive sense adults (not saying you) often have towards little ones. Kids respond to that like a flower to the sun. (The main reason kids feel that adults don't understand them is because they don't, and don't care to.)

I don't talk down to them; I do try to talk to their level or just a bit ahead of their level. (Never in a voice or tone that sounds like an adult talking to a child. Use your normal, adult-to-adult voice!) That requires finding out what their level is on any given topic. As a tutor, you are in a great position to do this.

Start by drawing the student out about what they know of the day's topic. "If you were going to teach me about division, what would you say to me?" Use an opening question to find the areas where your student is fuzzy, but keep digging with follow-up questions.

Non-threatening questions show you are interested. If s/he is really overwhelmed you might have to get very, very basic, like, "What's the number on top called?" Let them know you are just looking for information, so you know where to start.

The point is to really, really understand what the child knows, doesn't know, knows a little bit. Then fill in the gaps.

Also, find ways to relate the subject to things the child is interested in. If the problems are, say, division, bring in a bag of marbles (or ponies, or coins, or...) to divide on the floor. Get all kinesthetic with the subject. Even 5th graders are still very physical with their world.

Show genuine enthusiasm for any trace of progress in the student. You may well be the only one in the child's life who cares how they perform.

If the student believes you are co-conspirators in this game of learning, rather than yet another adult trying to stuff knowledge into the kid's unwilling head, you can be instrumental in infusing a love of learning in the student.
posted by trinity8-director at 9:27 PM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might find John Mighton's The Myth of Ability a useful read. He was a math tutor and is the author of the JUMP Math curriculum. His philosophy has to do with breaking math tasks down into such small bits that any child can succeed and being very enthusiastic about kids' success (as trinity8-director said, some kids have not experienced success or adults who are enthusiastic about their learning). His way of thinking can be really useful for reminding adults that just because they have integrated multiple steps into one doesn't mean that kids are ready for that. I use JUMP Math with my kids, but also find that when my kids and I are stuck in any subject, using Mighton's technique of thinking, "what is the smallest unit of knowledge here? what is the smallest task they could take on?" can get us out of some bottlenecks.
posted by not that girl at 5:47 AM on August 15, 2012

You might want to look up the term/ find books that cover "building background knowledge"- lots of kids today aren't exposed to things that older generations were and this is especially true of poor children.
posted by momochan at 9:30 AM on August 15, 2012

I agree very much with not that girl.

Further reading about ability/talent mythology below. I found the research in these books to be extraordinarily liberating. The both cover the same concepts but from different perspectives.

Oversimplified, anybody can become as skilled as they wish in any field, if they are willing to put in the work (in the right way).

The Talent Code
Talent Is Overrated
posted by trinity8-director at 1:41 PM on August 15, 2012

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