Algebra in the Early Grades: Setting the Stage for Future Studies and a Math Mindset

Colleen Henry, Fairview Elementary School, Auburn, ME

If you had asked me a few years ago how I was preparing my second graders for their future studies in algebra, I would have laughed! Algebra is for teenagers and addition and subtraction facts are for second graders...now I realize how wrong I was. I was fortunate enough to be a part of an amazing STEM professional development for early elementary mathematics instruction. The skills, strategies, and techniques I learned have changed the way I will teach mathematics and think about my math students!

The early elementary years are critical in setting the stage for a love of math. Young children are naturally curious and eager to learn new ideas. I believe that it is at this age that children can learn to be flexible problem solvers and develop a growth mindset about themselves as learners, which is especially important if our goal is to build future classrooms of higher level mathematicians.

In my math workshop, we work on being flexible problem solvers in a number of ways. Students solve Open Task problems on a regular basis in math workshop. Open tasks allow students to attack the problem at their own entry point, feel successful, and witness how many different solutions there can be to the same problem. Implementing open task problems has been a huge shift. In the past, students would work on solving word problems that had one and only one correct answer. Quick problem solvers were done right away and the mathematical thinking ended right there. Students that were slower to process the problem often gave up and began to feel negatively about themselves as math students. By using open tasks, my students have realized that problem solving doesn’t end with one answer, they continue finding other solutions that could work to solve their problems and are extremely motivated to do so! Students are able to have powerful dialogue about their solutions because of the variety of solutions that occur from open tasks. Hearing second graders ask each other why they selected various strategies and models is not something I would have expected for such young children, but it happens daily now! Seeing students not want math time to end has been amazing to witness and very validating.

Using a variety of tools to make visual representations of their thinking is another way we are preparing our young mathematicians. Students are learning to explain their thinking and work through their problem solving with tools such as open number lines, base-ten blocks, and ten frames. The use of manipulatives and visuals has really helped to raise the level of dialogue and understanding of many math concepts for the students. Students are able to model their thinking using a variety of tools and act as math mentors to their peers. In the past, the struggling math students used manipulatives, and there was a mindset by the students that only struggling math students should use them. By expecting all students to model their thinking with a visual tool and to explain their thinking, all students have raised their math skills and added to their bag of tricks for solving problems.

I believe that the early elementary years set the stage for a math mindset. We often hear of math anxiety or people labeling themselves as “not a math person”. My hope is that with more classrooms having the opportunity to learn about open taks, visual representations to aid in explaining their thinking, and creating opportunities for dialogue in problem solving, we will have far less math anxiety are much more flexible problem solvers confident in their understanding and ability to work through challenges. Professional development for early elementary educators is critical for this to happen.