Math Matters

Edusmart Edition, Volume 4 - January 2016

The Importance of Process Thinking

Its a new year and that brings lots of hope for the potential of what can come from the efforts we are willing to make. The new year always brings a chance for renewal - an opportunity to remake yourself, change a habit, or even begin to think differently and behave differently than you have before. This renewed hope and positive attitude swept in with the winter winds can also be an opportunity to improve the way students think about mathematics. By placing a new focus on mathematical processes and reasoning, we can show students that Math really does Matter!

What's the difference between Processes and Procedures

According to the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Melon University, a process defines "what" needs to be done and procedure defines "how" to do the task. Consider this in a mathematical problem solving situation. The processes we use describe how the task is analyzed and the steps and procedures we should take are identified whereas the procedures come second, as we solve the problem, and employ the procedure through a series of steps to derive the solution. I think about process thinking as mathematical reasoning - the sum total of interpreting, analyzing, solving, justifying, and explaining along the problem solving journey. In this way procedural thinking is just one part of the whole process. When we attempt to develop procedural thinking first, we limit students to a series of steps that aren't always universal to use and we resort quickly to tricks and gimmicks to help students remember the various procedures and when they would apply. But rather than this, if we focus on developing a sense of process, then we enable students to harness the power of mathematics because they begin to see patterns, explore when, how, and why certain procedures work, and can explain their thinking and back up their explanations with solid mathematical understanding.
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The Process Standards

Process skills pervade the mathematics standards, both nationally and in individual states such as Texas. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has included standards on problem solving and process thinking since publishing An Agenda for Action in 1980. Using the NTCM Principles and Standards as a foundation, the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics along with specific state standard documents such as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, have increased a focus on the inclusion of process skills that should overarch the teaching and learning of content skills.

The current version of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Mathematics, adopted in 2012 and implemented in 2014 showcase standards for process thinking at the forefront, and then layer in specific content objectives using the process skills as a foundation of strong problem solving and reasoning. All of the knowledge statements that comprise the standards that follow the process skills begin with the phrase “the student applies mathematical process standards to…” illustrating a newfound emphasis on the use of these skills in working with all mathematical content to be learned. The process standards found within the TEKS, like those found in the NTCM Principles and Standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice in the CCSS, describe ways in which students are expected to engage in learning and working with mathematics content throughout their courses of study.

Read more in my paper about the importance of these process skills and find a reference chart highlighting the process standards found within the NCTM Principles and Standards, the CCSS, and the TEKS.

Classroom Ideas for Promoting Process Thinking

Making the shift to a focus on process thinking over procedural thinking doesn't have to be hard, it just means we have to design learning around what we want students think about and discover about the mathematical ideas in our content rather than only teaching them the rote procedures to apply. This means designing work that allows students to make connections about math content across concepts, to generalize, find patterns, analyze solutions, and explain/justify what they did and what they were thinking about in the problem solving cycle. A few ideas are:

  • Provide students a series of problems that are already solved. Have them identify correctly worked solutions and those that are incorrect. For all incorrect work, have them identify where the mistake occurred and describe why that person may have made that error.
  • Have students match representations together or to display there solution using more than two representations - such as verbal, graphical, tabular, algebraic, etc. Students should be able to explain how their solution is represented in all the views and explain why they selected each. Are some representations better than others?
  • For a problem with a series of steps, or a proof with several steps, provide students all the steps or component parts and have them determine the order they should be in. For example, for order of operations problem solving, put each step in the solution on a separate strip of paper. Provide a few extra steps that are incorrect based on common errors. Then have students put the steps in the correct order and try to identify the extraneous steps. Have them explain their thinking as they made decisions about which steps were to be used and which were not - using mathematical justifications.

Edusmart Math and Process Standards

The best way to ensure the process standards are covered is to offer students a wide range of instructional activities rather than focusing on one main modality. Edusmart can help support increasing a focus on the process standards in grades 6-8 Math through its higher order questions posed during instruction, the modeling of concepts using multiple and varied representations, and through the think aloud dialogue heard within the Instruction Modules. In addition, our Interactivities and Activities are based on the real world application of skills and are tied to the knowledge level of the TEKS. Each interactivity and activity requires students to transfer skill understanding obtained during topic level instruction to the real world career applications presented in our Math in the Real World videos. Students reason, analyze, and apply using multiple representations in a meaningful way to connect and deepen their learning throughout these tasks. Request a free 14-day account to see what Edusmart Math can do for your middle school classroom.

Kelli Mallory, Ed.D.

Edusmart Mathematics

Director of Curriculum and Professional Learning