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” – Let’s Change the Dialogue

I saw an article last week, entitled “Stop telling kids you are bad at math.  You are spreading math anxiety ‘like a virus “ .  It was all about how our culture basically perpetuates math anxiety in our children because we make it “okay” to be “bad” at math.  It’s not stigmatized like being bad at reading is, and therefore everyone feels okay admitting that math was a weakness or they don’t like math.I highly recommend you read the article). This is of course nothing new – this has been going on for probably as long as we have had schools. There have been other recent articles and videos specifically about this myth that some people are just not good at math – Jo Boalers’ work comes to mind.

So, I am not going to belabor the point. What I think would be more helpful is to offer some suggestions, specifically to parents, on how NOT to perpetuating this idea that’s it’s okay to be bad at math or fostering in your children math anxiety because you yourself might not feel confident about your own math abilities.

If I look back to when I was a child, my father was an architectural engineer and a mother who was a typical woman of her generation – high school graduate and then stay-at-home mom to five children. You would think that when we struggled in mathematics, dad would have been our go-to help, but believe me, if you ever ask an architectural engineer for help with anything, you get a history lesson on the origins of the problem and a diagram of the situation and two hours later there is still no real help! No, mom was our go-to support.  And what I remember more than anything, especially as we got into harder subjects, was my mom telling us, “well, you smart enough to figure it out.  Read about it, and if that doesn’t help, ask your teacher for help”.  Never did she say “I’m not good at math” or “math is hard, I never understood it”.  Even though she clearly did not understand or know how to help us, it was NOT because she wasn’t good at math (or whatever the subject), it was because, as she would say, she hadn’t learned it herself so let’s go figure it out together and if we can’t, then let’s get help from someone who does know, like your teacher.  Obviously now, students have the ability to use the internet to get help – there are a million tutorials and help sites out there.  But in my day, that was not an option, so we read the textooks, asked the teachers, and asked friends or siblings for help.

The key here: never once were the words “I was not good at math” ever uttered by my mom.  And it was definitely NOT okay to use that as an excuse if the math was “hard” – it was instilled in us that we could do anything with hard work, research and support when needed.  It was never okay to say “I am just not good at math because neither is mom”. Instead we were always given the confidence to try, to find the solutions, to ask for help, to struggle and maybe fail. As long as we had tried, researched, and put in the effort, that was what mattered, and that was what would help us learn, even when things got tough. Because we could do anything we put our mind to as long as we worked at it and asked for help and didn’t give up or give in to excuses.  And – I have to say, all five of us, while very different, all have succeeded in our lives and have strong math skills we use in our careers – a physicians-assistant, a math educator, an engineer, a carpenter, and a priest

So – for those parents out there who look at their children’s math work and say to themselves, “I have no idea how to help you” or “I’ve never seen this before – I use to do it differently” or “OH NO!!! I can’t help you”, here are some suggestions from my mother (yes, I called her up!).  She admits feeling and thinking these thoughts many times, but what she said she always wanted to instill in all of us was the idea that school was a place to improve yourself and get better at something.

1) Never ever, ever say “I’m not good at math (or whatever subject really)” or “Oh, that’s okay, I was never good at math (or any subject) either….” Or “I hate math”.

2) Do say, “I’ve haven’t seen this in a while.  Can you show me in your notes, or textbook, or ebook, what you’ve been doing so I can refresh my memory?”  Or “can you explain to me what you’ve been doing in class/school?”  If you get students to talk about what they think they have been learning, that often helps them recall how to do something, and it will perhaps remind you of some things as well.

3) Take time to actually read through the textbook, ebook, notes, etc. to see if that helps jog your memory.  If you are at a complete loss, then together, do some research on the internet.  There are tons of free help videos or games or tutorials for math (and other subjects).

4) Try to work through the problem (s) with your child, asking them to explain in words what they think they should do.  Often times students can articulate out loud what they have to do or are thinking, but have a difficult time putting it down on paper, so help them organize their thinking, one step at a time.

5) Let’s say you and they are still stuck – that’s okay.

  • Write out what you have tried, even if it doesn’t match what the textbook says they should do or what the teacher wants them to do. A lot of times students know how to solve a problem but are being forced to solve it a specific way that doesn’t coincide with their thought process. Have them write out what they do understand or their thought process.  Being able to explain how they understood a problem, how they approached their solution, is part of the learning process.
  • A good teacher is going to look at what they have done and know they put in the effort. If they showed their thought process, then the teacher can see where they might have gotten confused and support them to the next step.

6) If you and they are still frustrated, ask for help.

  • Ask for time with the teacher to help understand.
  • Ask for resources – many curriculums have supports for parents the teacher can send
  • Ask for supporting materials – a lot of textbooks/ebooks have online support and games that can help.

7)  Never give up – never give in to frustration in front of your child, because this just exacerbates math anxiety.  Instead, work as far as you can and then say “hey – we’ve reached a point where I think we might need some help.  Let’s ask your teacher. We are not giving up, but rather we are stuck and need a bit of help to get us to the next step.

The idea here is to instill the idea that math is doable, that learning math might require some effort and research, and may even require some outside help, but you can do it.  You can learn math.  It’s okay to struggle, because eventually you will get it.  The hardest part is to not fall back on the acceptable “math is hard, so it’s okay not to be good” or it’s okay to say “I hate math”.   Let’s change the dialogue.