Monday, March 26, 2018

I'm not good at math

I stand among the few that use timers and timed tests sparingly, especially in math. There is a persistent drive to qualify success through pace. Math is one of the areas that I see it most. 

We rely heavily on rote memorization in math. In teaching school I was inundated with courses that taught the value of speed and accuracy in recall. They argued that true mastery could be measured by how quickly a student to get to the right answer. Something about this stance has always tugged at me. But I completed my courses, got my license, and started in a classroom.

This is where that strange tug turned into a full fledged stance. My first class had two special students. When I say special, I mean that they were close to my heart. I loved all of my students but these two taught me a lot about how to be a good teacher. Both hated math. Both had been weighed down by this idea that math was about getting to an answer quickly. Each student, a boy and a girl, had come to believe they were bad at math. Yet every day I saw them do countless incredible things using skills that were adjacent to those they needed to be successful in math. 

It took me some time to realize what was happening, but when I did everything changed. They doubted themselves. They had grown to believe they were never going to be good at math. It was a class "I'm not good, so why bother" scenario. We've all heard it. Adults are particularly guilty of using the expression. I've worked with brilliant, professional peers who were saying it even while working in fields that required high levels of math ability. 

It turned out, that my two special friends needed confidence. They were born with the ability and capacity. They had just found enough reasons to believe they couldn't. Building them become my number one goal. I praised them, and praised them, and complemented them, and pointed out every success...until finally I started to see chips in the walls they had built up. Once that happened I had my opening. The next big thing I did was connect the material to something they loved. One instructional theory, Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction talk specifically about the need for relevance in curriculum. In this case, I have to vouch for it's success. Making relevant connections to things like video games, sports, food, and music suddenly made math feel tangible and real. In their own ways, each one of these students started to have what my peers calls "aha" moments. Soon they were leading the charge.

Its in this way that I found how valuable a healthy math identity can be. 

Edutopia has a great article right now about math. It has some amazing advice but the paragraph that caught my attention most was the last. It reads...


Whether they say it or not, students do wonder what it takes to be a great mathematician. They need to know it’s not about speed and always being right—it’s about curiosity, passion, and dedication. Children need to feel empowered as mathematicians and recognize that they are equipped with everything they need to be successful in mathematics. When young children develop a healthy math identity, they’re on the path to succeeding in math at the highest levels.

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