As I get a bit older, I find my faint memories of my elementary school experience fading further and further away. One of the moments I do remember quite distinctly was during a grade 2 math class in which I just couldn't seem to get my head around subtraction. The worksheet featured a bunch of quick math facts asking to subtract 1, 2 and 3 from two digit numbers less than 20. My teacher, would circulate the class with the classic red pencil and put checkmarks on the correct ones, and a big old X beside the incorrect ones. My page featured a bunch of Xs. I felt dejected, and I did was most 7-year olds would do when frustrated, I cried. I remember my worksheet becoming riddled with my own tears, causing the red pencil to run, making me even more upset. What happened next was equally memorable, a classmate sitting in front of me named Jan, turned around and showed me how to do it. I think she showed me how to use my ruler to figure them out. That simple trick helped me out, and I got the sheet done. I was the last in the class to finish, and I remember that equally well because I was eager to get out for recess.
My High School experiences with math class fluctuated between "a-ha moments" and similar frustrations. What I do remember about those classes were thick textbooks, a lot of homework, and a series of "Charlie Brown teachers" talking really fast, and really knowledgeably about new learning that seemed hard to grasp. What I ended up taking away with from my math classes was that I "just wasn't a math person". It wasn't until I started working with students in my 20s that I re-discorvered mathematics, and how beautiful it could be. Suddenly, I was being asked to teach math, but I was armed with teaching strategies. I had master teachers, and colleagues who helped me learn how to teach children to understand basic, intermediate and complex concepts. And you know what the result was? I discovered I was indeed a "math person". The concepts that had proven difficult in my youth suddenly made sense. I became a confident teacher, but more directly I started to implement math more instinctively in my day-to-day life. Mental math and estimation were automatic.
This week, I saw a great Tweet from one of my teachers, which featured a quote from a student:
"Today I realized I'm actually really good at math! Was never confident to share my math with others but now I am for sure!"
I don't know what it was about that moment, but I found all those aforementioned experiences came flooding back. I pictured myself as that student, and realized how amazing it would have been if I had experienced that feeling in elementary school. I wonder if my educational experiences would have changed, or if my paths, course selections, and interests may have led me elsewhere.
I came across a great article a while back entitled "Why We're Bad at Math: It's a Confidence Thing" (http://educationpost.org/why-were-bad-at-math-its-a-confidence-thing) and I realized that this is a very common theme. As a school administrator I have encountered many colleagues, parents, and other professionals who have all told me stories similar to the ones I have shared. Adults seem to have no problem whatsoever in sharing their proficiency (less so) or deficit (more so) as a math learner. I hear the same refrain over and over: "I'm just not a math person" which is almost always followed up with a story full of rich and vivid memories.
Listening to, and learning from afar from Dr. Gina Cherkowski (@gcherkowski) has helped me to understand what an important job we have in ensuring success for our students in mathematics. Her work with STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) has illustrated that helping establish the right attitudes for students, and ensuring they are engaged is essential to the learning process. She illustrates her work through studies and research that show how vital a strong mathematics foundation is for jobs and careers that will be available to our students.
I realize we, as teachers and parents, have to be better at shaping the right attitudes toward proficiency in mathematics, and it starts with adding one word to "I'm not a math person", and that word is "yet". Creating a healthy growth mindset for mathematics learning is key to success for our students and children. Some simple steps to assisting in this include:
1) actively listen to your student / child as they talk about their math learning experiences
2) teachers must personalize instruction through formative assessment and a specific plan
3) at indication of struggle, seek to show things in a different way - there are many ways to discover math other than "how we learned it in school". Khan Academy videos are a great example of a useful support (https://www.khanacademy.org)
4) recognize that "getting it" might not happen right away, and that's ok
5) accept that practice, repetition, application, extension, and connection are all parts of the math process, and that learning math is more that a checkmark or an x on a page
As educators, we aggressively teach and support our non-readers. We would never accept a student saying something like "I'm just not a reader". I think we need to have the same attitude toward teaching students needing a boost in math. It's important that we always respond directly to our students / children when they say "I'm just not a math person". Simply state, "You mean you're just not a math person, yet."
ps. picture at the top is from Good Will Hunting, one of my fave movies that always made me wish I was a math genius