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.

This week at the Carrot Ranch, D. Avery took the reins from Charli Mills and challenged writers to in In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that symbolically, mythically, mystically, or realistically involves dawn, as a noun or verb. Write about the dawn of time or the time of dawn, or the dawning of an idea. As always, go where the prompt leads.

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.


13 thoughts on “Is the ‘right way’ always the best way?

  1. 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!


  2. 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.


  3. 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!


  4. 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


  5. 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.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. 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”.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 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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