Slow at Math ≠ Bad at Math

*Note: This is a recycled post from my personal blog.

“Speed ISN’T important in math. What is important is to deeply understand mathematical ideas and connections. Whether you are fast or slow isn’t really relevant.” – Laurent Schwartz, mathematician

If you haven’t seen the video by Jo Boaler and some of her Stanford students entitled “How to Learn Math: Four Key Messages”, you definitely need to. Besides the four powerful messages (which I will list below), it has some great stories and quotes, one of which is the one I have above.  Jo Boaler has done powerful research and written some terrific books on mathematics and learning math (one of my favorites being “What’s Math Got to Do with It?” and the video about these four key messages in math is so interesting.

Here are the four key messages about learning math (I highly recommend you watch the video to clarify and define each message a bit more):

  1. Everyone can learn math at high levels
  2. Believe in yourself (your beliefs about your abilities actually changes the way your brain learns)
  3. Struggle and mistakes are really important in learning math
  4. Speed is NOT important
All of these speak directly to the way we still, sadly, often teach and learn mathematics. One that really struck out for me was #4, speed is not important. I remember my own daughters struggling with the timed math tests – i.e. you have a minute to try and solve 100 times tables, or complete as many addition problems as possible. Very stressful, very ridiculous, and to top it off, they were penalized with poor grades if they couldn’t reach the arbitrary goal of “x amount of problems in 1 minute”. It still goes on and students memorize and stress over these timed math drills. Why? It’s ridiculous. If we continue to do this to students, then they begin to believe they are bad at math (see #2 above), which leads to them thinking they can’t learn math (see #1), and therefore leads to them giving up when problems get tough (see #3). A self-fulfilling prophecy.
So – I ask those math teachers out there who continue to put pressure on students to perform mathematical skills in a timed matter, where speed is important – stop. Just stop. Focus on what mathematics should be – understanding why those calculations matter, what they are related to, how they help us solve real-world problems. Help students make connections.
I know I keep coming back to it – but the Common Core Mathematical Practices seem to embody these four key messages. No where in there does it say students have to be able to do ___calculations in _____ minutes. Math is NOT about speed – it’s about the struggle, perseverance, conjectures, connections, and applications that help students solve relevant, real-world problems and see the beauty and need for mathematics.
Check out the video here
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“I Hate Math” – We Need To Stop This Mantra!

If you are a math teacher, you have heard “I hate math” from students, parents, friends….it is often the first thing someone says when you tell them you teach math for a living. Our traditional way of teaching mathematics, through memorization of steps and skills without context or connection, is partly to blame for this.  And, unfortunately, still the prevalent way of teaching today, despite research and standards that encourage and promote thinking, questioning, and multiple approaches. It’s discouraging, it’s depressing, and it’s a disservice to students. No one should “hate math”, and when you hear it from a child as young as 6 (see the video below), it’s even more depressing, because this is someone who hasn’t even really begun to know anything about math and yet they already hate it. Probably because they are being forced to do timed drills, or worksheets (as a friend recently shared with me about their child’s math class).

I just watched this great TEDx talk I found by Dan Finkel, where he talks about bringing joy to mathematics learning.  He begins with discussing how the fear and hatred of math permeates life, and can contribute to poor decisions and immediate trust in deceiving statistics; “When we are not comfortable with math, we don’t question the authority of numbers” (Dan Finkel, TEDxRainier, The Joy of Math).  He points out that the ordinary math class begins with answers – with little opportunity for questioning or creativity. We give students the steps to skills (i.e. steps to multiply, divide, find x, etc.) and our “questions” have set answers, and once skills are grasped, we move on.  “There is no room to doubt, or imagine, or refuse…so there’s no real thinking here”. Sound familiar?  Sound like a topics needed to master for a standardized tests?

Instead, we need to give students a question and make it authentic.  (His example with the numbers 1-20 and the colors is great, so be sure to watch that). I’ve written about this previously – making math relevant, authentic, and focus on questioning (Real-world Math Applications vs. “Naked” Math; Math Questioning to Support Mathematical Practices). Finkel’s point is that math and the beauty of math can be found by asking questions. “Thinking happens only when we have time to struggle”. Time is so important – it’s the only way to teach students to be ‘tenacious’ and to persevere.  So those of you out there still stuck in this obsession with ‘timed’ skills and rote memorization, pay attention to this video and what Finkel is saying. There are many others saying the same thing (i.e. Jo Boaler from Stanford), but Dan’s message is well worth listening to.  He has so many great quotes, I could go on and on writing them in this post, but probably better if you listen yourself and take away from it that which speaks to you. For me, I am just more committed to the message that math should be about thinking, connections, questioning and providing students the opportunity and time to really explore, question and pursue authentic problems to spark their creativity. Let’s please stop the “I hate math” mantra and instead try to create joy and wonder about math so that instead we hear “Wow, look what I learned about math today!”