How the Order of Operations Sums Up A Future Generation


I just spent all last week teaching the order of operations to 8th graders–never-you-mind that the Common Core Standard that represents Order of Operations is a 5th grade objective.  Yep.  Just never-you-mind.  I found myself nearly comatose with the repetitive unpleasantness of it all.  I mean, a whole week went by something like this:

Me: “Okay.  What do we look for first?”

Class: “Parenthesis.”

Me: “Do we SEE any parenthesis?”

Class: “Yes.”

Me: “So let’s do what’s INSIDE of the parenthesis.” (writing)

Me: “Now! What do we look for NEXT?”

Class: “Exponents.”

Me: “Do we SEE any exponents.”

I’ll stop right there because there are 2 more sets of steps and because just thinking about my last week made me tired all over again.  But I’m sure you got the picture right?

Whelp!  Friday was quiz day and you guessed it!  Only about 10 of 65 students passed.  And by passed I am referring to making a D (sidenote:  when did a 60-anything become a D?  I swear that was an F when I was in middle school).  As I graded quizzes this weekend, I realized that each student had the same problem:  A Failure To Follow Directions.  Nay, I am being to kind–an inability to follow directions!

Order of operations are simple.  There’s more magic formula-no special trick, no slight of hand.  There is not a single way that I’ve seen YET to make it more interesting or fun or engaging.  It simply is what it is.  Order of operations in math is the equivalent of  passing drills on a basketball team.  You do it for the conditioning, understanding that in crunch time, some actions must set to automatic so that your  brain and muscles can do more complex tasks.

I feel sad for my students.  Not because they can’t do what amounts to skills that they may not even ever have to use in real life, but because this failure on the part of some many of them to simply follow the most basic set of instructions does not bode well for a future career doing much more than asking someone, “Do you want fries with that?”  I wonder how is it that things that I’ve felt were simplistic (like adding 2+7) seem to take such great effort for my students-how recalling 9 x 9 is like attempting to name all 50 states in under a minute?

Now, don’t get it twisted–I teach in an urban middle school, so yes, there are some factors at play that I have to take into account.  Hormones. Sleep Deprivation.  Ignorant Families. Instability.  Disabilities. Allathat!  And yet, even when accounting for these issues, these babies are unable to follow the most basic of instructions.  Do you know how many times I have to tell them to put their names at the top of the paper?  Or how many times I’ve had to say “your other left?”  You’d think I was teaching Kindergarten!  What is it that makes following directions such a pervasive struggle for these kids?

Okay.  I’m done. Thanks for listening to my rant.  In the mean time, I am moving on to that great drudgery that is adding and subtracting integers this week.  Y’all pray my strength.

1 Comment

  1. When I went through learning the Order of Operations I found it boring and tedious in trying to memorize the many sayings to remember P.E.M.D.A.S. That’s why I created Pemdas Man! It gave the topic more appeal to myself and the class, therefore making the learning easier. This resulted in better grades for the whole class. In teaching multiple of the ways people learn(such as visual, auditory and kinesthetic) and in making the learning more appealing to the kids will provide for a better retention of the content. I hope this helps your students!


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