How to ensure that each student believes they are a ‘math person’

All students are powerful mathematical thinkers, but they need to believe they are capable to succeed.

We live in a country with many people who say, “I’m not a math person.” This is a myth we tell ourselves—we are all math people; we may just not have had the opportunity to learn math in school the way our brain is naturally designed to learn. The human brain innately thinks of math at high levels, and children are born naturally curious, powerful mathematical thinkers.

Unfortunately, some teachers unintentionally condition that natural curiosity out of students. For example, when my elementary-aged daughter was trying to make sense of multiplication she experienced confusion—not knowing that it is a natural part of being curious and a necessary condition for learning. This was a great opportunity for her teacher to harness her curiosity and increase her depth of understanding of what is happening when we think multiplicatively with pictures, words, numbers and symbols.

Unfortunately, her teacher stopped her curiosity and told her it was OK to find it hard and confusing because “Girls are usually better at reading and writing and boys are usually better at math.” That kind of message reinforces the myth that math is for some people, but not everyone. It halted her desire to wonder and make sense of the math.

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A positive math identity supports more than just math skills. When students believe they are math people, they become confident risk-takers. Embracing an identity as a powerful math thinker helps students develop the ability to problem-solve, think critically and make sense of their world—things all brains and all people are capable of doing.

Building a positive math identity in the classroom

For teachers, the work of helping students build a positive math identity begins within themselves. The saying, “Hurt people hurt other people; healed people heal other people,” applies in many contexts, including in the math classroom. Teachers who have experienced their own form of math trauma, anxiety, or fear may unintentionally continue those experiences with their students. Breaking the cycle of “I’m not a math person” begins when adults who support math learning heal from within. Caregivers can take time to reflect and consider, “What is my own identity as a mathematician? How are my beliefs about myself being passed on to the young people in my life?”

If you have experienced trauma or anxiety around math yourself, name it, recognize it and lean into the discomfort of learning and healing to expand your conceptual understanding of mathematics. Math is so much more than calculations. Play around with math concepts, including thinking about what pictures you could draw to show why calculations work (i.e., why do we copy dot flip when multiplying fractions?) Playing with pictures to make sense of math turns the activity into a puzzle or riddle, rather than a “problem” to be solved.

Check your beliefs: do you really think that some kids can’t do math? If so, find out where that’s coming from and do the work required to get to the point where you believe what the research tells us to be true: that all brains are capable of learning, doing and making sense of high-level math, even our own.

Stop using phrases like “high kids” and “low kids.” Those coded phrases communicate that the speaker believes some kids are capable and some are not.

The way you believe informs how you speak, which informs how you act. While the way you speak can be enough to plant seeds of doubt in students about their own abilities, it takes more than telling them they are good at math to help them build a strong math identity. Instead, students need opportunities to understand and connect with math, which starts with the adults in their life truly believing they can.

When I chose to become a math teacher, my dad would say, “I don’t know where you got this. I was never good at math.” But he’s a brilliant mathematical thinker. He did not have the opportunity to learn that the way he naturally thinks about the world—as a gifted carpenter, car enthusiast and business owner—is mathematical brilliance, but it is.

He, like so many, just never had the opportunity to have his lived experiences mathematized formally. Given the opportunity to understand that when he is doing an estimate on a car—determining the parts he’ll need, the labor costs, the overhead, cost the insurance company will cover, and more—he’s thinking about variables that are changing and the relationship between the things that are changing to make an informed decision.

He’s thinking with very complex systems of equations. Having things he’s already thinking about connected to abstract symbols and numbers (i.e., labor costs (L) is calculated by hours worked (h) times hourly rate (x) is communicated symbolically as L=h(x)) allows letters in math to have meaning rather than “when am I ever going to need this” self-talk.

Students in our classrooms have powerful mathematical experiences they bring to school every day. Math teachers need to give students opportunities to share experiences and knowledge (like my dad’s) to intentionally create space for their voices and thinking to be amplified in the classroom. The teacher then has a responsibility to make sense of what a student knows and what they are ready to learn next.

For example, a student who already thinks with systems of equations needs opportunities to understand how to communicate that thinking formally with agreed-upon symbols, numbers and algorithms mathematicians use. More than hearing, “Yes, you’re great at math,” students need to experience math in the way that their brains are naturally programmed to. They need their teachers to lift them up as knowers and doers of math by making connections with them.

Building a positive math identity at home

Just like teachers, parents can support the development of a positive math identity by believing that everyone, including themselves, is capable of learning math. Tune in to the ways in which you think mathematically every day and remember math thinking is far more than computation and arithmetic. Any time you are thinking critically, designing, puzzling or creating a system to make meaning in order to make decisions, you are thinking mathematically. You can also look for resources, such as MathMINDS created by MIND Research Institute, that involve the family or community in positive math identity development.

Families can also build their children’s math identities by experiencing the joy of math together. Math is not just timed tests and flashcards. Just as teachers don’t tell families to give their kids phonics lessons to instill a love of reading, we shouldn’t be asking parents to drill their kids on math facts to learn to love math. Families can play with building blocks, mazes and puzzles or build a fort outside; talk about the shapes and other visual-spatial attributes of the environment around them; and delight in what amazing engineers and mathematicians they are together. They can play board games to develop a love of math just as they would read a book to inspire lifelong reading.

No matter what your connection to young math learners is, believing that everyone is a powerful mathematical thinker is a necessary first step. From there, get into the world, experience math thinking together, work to make sense of the world and embrace the joy of being a curious mathematician as a family and classroom community.

Amber Gardner
Amber Gardner
Amber Gardner is the partner of preK-12 mathematics teaching and learning for Cherry Creek School District.

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