Bringing Math to the Middle School Table - Part 2

By John Stevens posted 10-22-2018 15:20


I’m going to avoid the rhetorical question of “Have you ever argued with a kid in middle school?” because, well, it seems as though the ability to disagree is woven into teens, especially those in middle school.

Is that a bad thing?

Sure, I don’t want my students, or my own children, constantly forming opposition to my requests, expectations, or ideas. However, there is a difference between defiance and disagreement and we need to do a better job of nurturing the latter as a way of mitigating the former. By nature, human beings are curious, inquisitive, and cautionary. When we get into a situation that is unfamiliar, we make assumptions. When those assumptions are not realized, we disagree. Knowing that, let’s bring it into a math context:

Would you rather have a stack of quarters from the floor to the top of your head OR $225 in cash, however you’d enjoy it most?

Think about this one for a few minutes. In fact, do some research. In doing so, think about what questions you are asking yourself, what questions you are searching online for, and what physical acts and movements you are doing to reach a conclusion.

The art of debate is something that we may never perfect, as it has been in progress for as long as humans have roamed the Earth. Think about it: how often do you disagree with your spouse, sibling, boss, colleague, friend, pet? In math class, particularly, we shun the idea of a disagreement. After all, this is the right answer and there is no debating is because x equals 17.

Now, contrast that with the prompt above. Whether I pose the question to a workshop full of teachers or a classroom full of students, the groups begin researching immediately, oftentimes doing so in a variety of ways. For students, and sometimes even adults, the difficulty is not in finding the information, but putting it into a method of delivery that makes sense, that is respectable, and that they are proud to share. X does not equal 17 here; what are you going to do about it? Sure, there are facets of the problem that involve some correct mathematics, but the bigger question is asking which is the preferred option and why; the potential here for a deep conversation is rich.

To empower parents who are interested in having children who can disagree respectfully, mathematics provides ample opportunities if we frame the questions the right way. With, parents and teachers can seek out a myriad of prompts that intertwine socially-relevant problems with mathematics. Feel free to peruse the site and find a few prompts that would be good conversation starters at the dinner table this week, then share a few with your friends!

Even with a good prompt and a mathematically-relevant context, a disagreement is only as good as the parameters we set. Because we are working with middle schoolers (heck, even adults), setting up some guidelines can help move the discussion along in a productive manner. Here are the ones that I share with others.

When entering a disagreement, remember to bring your VEST.


Being the loudest one in the room does not make you the smartest room. We’ve heard that before, but we also have to think about the voices who are not being heard. Being the quietest one in the room isn’t productive either, so working with kids on their volume in a disagreement is a big first step.


How articulate can you be? How can you deliver your perspective in a way that others will receive? There are hundreds of thousands of innovators and entrepreneurs out there, but the ones who are successful can package their ideas into a format that is well-received and respected.


“I agree with her.” No, sorry; you need your own style. Then, when you do, own it! Getting kids to create their own style in discussions and disagreements is a powerful tool to own. While there will be similarities, the people who are unique in their delivery are often the ones remembered.


Nobody likes someone who is condescending or rude, no matter how intelligent the thoughts may be. Especially for our young teenagers who are developing at different rates, getting them to be cognizant of how their tone comes across could be the difference between a well-respected perspective and one that is dismissed altogether.

In fact, as you read those, they sound like pretty good guidelines to follow no matter how old you are... maybe?

In the next post, I am going to share more ideas for parents of middle school students to have math-based conversations with their kids. Until then, go out and find a Would You Rather while shopping, driving, cooking, or somewhere else. Share it back with me, as I would love to hear what you and your child(ren) talk about.

Thank you for bringing math to the table.

John Stevens