# Is the ‘right way’ always the best way?

Giving children opportunities to question, to be creative, and to problem solve are high on my priorities. Children need to be given the time and opportunity to figure out things for themselves. While it is sometimes easier just to tell or show them what to do, or even do it for them, it is generally better for their development, to let them have a go at finding a method or solution. Please note: I am not talking about dangerous things here like playing with fire, testing to see how fierce that dog really is, or driving a car.

If children are constantly told there is a right way of doing things, they will stop exploring, discovering, and inventing their own or new ways of doing things. This is an issue because, if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll never progress. There is generally no harm in, but much to learn from, each successive attempt.

Opportunities to explore, discover, and use intuition are also important to the development of mathematical thinking. When children are developing understanding of number, they often invent their own strategies for working with numbers. Sometimes, as attested in this paper by Heirdsfield, Cooper and Irons, the strategies used display more advanced thinking, and are more efficient, than those taught as ‘the’ correct way of solving a problem using pencil and paper.

I have noticed a change in the speed and agility with which my seven-year-old grandson works with numbers now that he has learned there are certain ways of; for example, adding two numbers. He tends to second-guess himself as he attempts to mentally calculate using the pencil and paper method he has been taught, rather than other more effective strategies he had previously invented and used. Perhaps you have noticed something similar.

Provocations, such as these 3 Fun Inquiry Maths Activities for the Last Week of School by Steph Groshell on Education Rickshaw,  are great to get children thinking about different ways of solving real problems.

Little Koala’s Party – a story for problem solving in the readilearn mathematics resources also encourages mathematical thinking and planning. Children help Little Koala organise a party for her family and friends, deciding who will be invited, the number of guests, and what’s on the menu. The suggestion is made that children plan a party of their own and they are asked to consider how they would go about it. The discussion and sharing of ideas, rather than the imposition of one ‘right’ way, is the important thing in developing mathematical thinking.

Now it might seem a stretch to tie this in with a piece of flash fiction, but I hope you’ll be able to follow my thinking through the mist and into the light.

The right way

Father and Son sat side by side. Father cracked his knuckles and sighed repeatedly while Son sharpened his pencils, each pencil, and arranged them meticulously according to undisclosed criteria.

“Come on. Just get it done. Then you can play.”

“I’m thinking.”

“Think faster.”

“I know it’s 96.”

“Well write it down.”

“Sir says I have to do the working out.”

“Then do it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Like this. See.”

“That’s not how we do it. Sir says…”

“Then do what Sir says.”

Slowly it dawned on Dad: Sir’s way may not be the best way for all.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

## 41 thoughts on “Is the ‘right way’ always the best way?”

1. Sarah Brentyn

Ugh. You’re hitting on all my weaknesses. I’m usually pretty open to different ways of getting to the finish line. And I encourage creativity (with fellow writers, friends, students) and yet…with my own children. Bah! Creativity. Definitely. But…the “right” way… It’s just so much easier when you’re juggling 30 things and trying to get out the door to have everyone do it the same way or, worse, do it myself because it’s quicker and easier. It’s a bad habit but it’s kept us from being late and/or not making it at all but I should watch that.

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1. Norah Post author

I know exactly what you mean! I remember discussing this before, and even writing a ff piece about it at one stage. G2 is now 5 and really exerting her power. It is difficult sometimes to strike the balance. Do we let her get her way, or deny her so we can have ours? It’s always a difficult decision. Compliance is easier to deal with, but does it bring better results in the long run? Who knows? We can never know. There’s no control group in these parenting (and grandparenting) experiments.

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1. Sarah Brentyn

I think the best solution is to let them “have their way” or do it “their” way or show them different ways when you don’t need to actually be doing it. For example, letting them make their own dinner on the weekend, not a school night. Or tying their shoes when you’re headed out for some fun in the yard, not when they’re headed to soccer where they could have the laces untie in the middle of practice (if you make it at all because they’re taking so long). 😉 Though these are the times when you’re not thinking of it. So… ? Bah!

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1. Norah Post author

Life wasn’t meant to be easy, and it’s always easier to think what should be done, than to do it at the point of need. 🙂 Bah indeed!

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2. Annecdotist

Interesting post, Norah, and clever tie in to the flash prompt. I wonder if there’s ever a single right way to go about things, rather a set of techniques that have been shown to be effective for the majority. It reminds me of my beef with some creative writing teaching!

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1. Norah Post author

Thanks, Anne. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. The link was probably a bit obscure – comes from reading the prompt on its own, without the supporting post. Never mind, it dawned on me too late that I was a bit wide of the mark. 🙂
A set of techniques from which to choose is probably a good idea (except for road rules maybe?)
I’d love to hear more of your beef with some creative writing teaching. I’m sure you’ve written about it before. Link please, if it’s not too difficult. 🙂

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1. Annecdotist

Thanks for your query about my thoughts on creative writing teaching. I’m not sure I written about it that much, partly because I haven’t actually done that many courses, good or bad. But I wrote a post about eighteen months ago (on which you commented):
http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal/for-whose-benefit-a-sideways-look-at-the-creative-writing-industry
I note that I mentioned Emma Darwin as a creative writing teacher whose approach I admire (which I think is similar to yours as an early years teacher) as, well she doesn’t deny her undoubted expertise, there’s a humility and thoughtfulness in her suggestions which helps learners to find their own way through. Anyway, although I’ve followed her blog for years I’ll be meeting her for the first time at the workshop on Saturday 🙂

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1. Norah Post author

Hi Anne, Thanks for linking back to the post about writing courses. I enjoyed re-reading it (dare I say, as if for the first time). If my comment hadn’t been there, I couldn’t have been sure. 🙂
How exciting it will be to meet Emma Darwin on Saturday. She does seem like a superb teacher. I hope you don’t feel let down afterwards and look forward to hearing your thoughts. I wish I could attend with you. Enjoy!
Oh, and your comment reminds me that I finished “Underneath” this morning. Must get over to Amazon and leave a review. Interesting story with a surprise at the end. Now, why didn’t I see that coming??!!

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3. Lisa @ The Meaning of Me

Love your tie-in here with the post and flash. So true that children do well when we allow them to figure things out and discover on their own. Sure, we can tell them, but they don’t really learn then, nor do they retain. As a former teacher, I saw this all too often – and sometimes the kids really just want the answer. But that’s no good. They don’t need answers, they need to learn the process of thinking, reasoning. Then they can learn all the answers they need.
Great stuff here.

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1. Norah Post author

Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate that you have joined in with your thoughts. I think children wanting to be given answers, in part, comes from not having previous unsuccessful attempts accepted as part of the learning process. If they are constantly told they are wrong, why would they bother trying? It would be much easier just to be told.
And you’re right, when we can think for ourselves, we can discover all the answers we need.
I appreciate your support.

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4. Bec Colvin

Thanks Nor for sharing – you have me convinced that it’s so important to encourage creative approaches. I am so wedded to the scientific method that I often feel knowing “how” is more important than getting an answer. But it raises the question of when we might have the “how” not quite right, and how this could stifle creativity. I think you did a great job with the FF!

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1. Norah Post author

Thanks, Bec. I would think the scientific way is all about finding new answers so am a little intrigued by your response. If the “how” isn’t quite right, and doesn’t find a worthwhile new answer, don’t scientists adjust the “how” and try again?
I’m pleased you enjoyed the FF. 🙂

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5. TanGental

tying shoelaces… that’s all I’m saying. But subtraction too, as i recall, where my son had this way, not that he’d explain it. He was made to conform eventually. Mind you now having him conform wouldn’t be a bad idea!! Love the flash; it certainly resonates

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1. Norah Post author

Tying shoelaces! Yeah, I guess that’s right – with a double knot please. I don’t know how many pairs of shoelaces I tied as a teacher. Many of them were wet too – please, I never wanted to know how they got wet! Why is it so difficult? Thank goodness for Velcro! What a clever invention, and a wonderful story about how it came to be.
I know what you mean about conformity. Yes, we want our children to be able to think for themselves – but not when we want them to do what we want! 🙂

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6. dishwaryamil

I hope that few of the masters of the Missionary’s schools read your post. These guys are in the habit of making every child a conformist.

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1. Norah Post author

I guess we need to conform about some things, but other things require an individual approach. I’d love you to share my post with the Missionary school.

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1. Norah Post author

Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m pleased you can see the potential in using Little Koala’s Party for developing problem solving skills.

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7. thecontentedcrafter

I once had a student in my class who found math very easy. He always knew the answer first in oral situations and got written problems correct and never showed the ‘correct’ way of solving his sums. I gave him the task of teaching the rest of the class his way of working with number problems. At first he found it hard to articulate and then , as he got into it and the others started to get a hint of understanding it fell into a question and answer session and him demonstrating his solutions on the board. Some of us never fully understood his method! But the value of that day showed up in a hundred different ways – his confidence and pride in his work took off, the kids respect for his prowess in this field meant he took a leading role in peer teaching and others made the leap into subjects like algebra more easily with his assistance – and for him having to become really conscious of his natural talent with numbers and his processes was also a positive experience. I remember moments of that first day with that kid as my ‘assistant math teacher’ with real pleasure. He taught me that there are different ways and processes with numbers and as long as we get where we need to be, the route isn’t that important.

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1. Norah Post author

Hi Pauline, Thank you for sharing this story of your ‘assistant maths teacher’. Some children just seem to get the number system, don’t they. It’s wonderful when children work things out for themselves, see the patterns underlying and use them to advantage. Others who are taught methods devoid of understanding seem to remain in confusion forever. I love that our students can teach us as much about learning as we teach them. I’ve always said that children are the best teachers. We just need to be ready and open to learning.

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8. D. Avery @shiftnshake

Agreed and too often Sir is the parent, who doesn’t have the patience or trust in a child discovering and developing number sense and so rushes them to the procedural methods that they are familiar with and that rob the child of a lasting learning and understanding (a good reason not to give homework). 96! What a rich number to play with, so many ways to decompose and recompose it. Poor kid.
In Sir’s defense, there is value in the child thinking about his thinking and showing or explaining his thinking and solution strategy, as opposed to just writing down “the answer”.

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1. Norah Post author

Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion D. Both points are valid and important. A balance between the two is important. Too much structure and formal methods without understanding stifles progress; but sometimes the correct answer can be arrived at through faulty logic. Showing the thinking behind the answer demonstrates that and enables teachers to repair misunderstandings. What a complex world we live in!

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9. Susan Scott

Glad it dawned on Dad that Sir was not always right! Your story is a lovely example! There was an interesting post about Finland having the best education in terms of children being very happy at school – there was no homework and the emphasis was on play. Free education paid for by rich taxpayers and the children excelled in all scholastic fields.

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10. Ritu

Norah, I loved your preamble here!
As a teacher it is easy to get bogged down with wanting to see the ‘right’ answer, rather than concentrating on whether the children actually understand what we are trying to teach them. You are right, there are so many concepts and ways of doing things and we are all different, hence different methods will work for us!
We are introducing the Singapore Bar Method into our Maths lessons at school, and it encourages a lot of discussion amongst peers, before giving them a chance to fly unaided. There are many different ‘manipulatives’ available for the children that need them, for those who are more visual, so Unifix cubes, counters, number lines etc. Hopefully this will allow them to find their own way going forward!

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1. Norah Post author

Hi Ritu, Thank you for your supportive comment, and for letting me know about the Singapore Bar Method. I wasn’t aware of it so had to check it out. I think that anything that encourages discussion is great, and manipulatives are a great boost to understanding. I look forward to hearing about the success of the program.

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