Mathematics can be an imposing and feared subject, with many students believing it’s too difficult to be understood or too irrelevant to be appreciated. I’ve found that people’s feelings and mindset about math are usually based on a flawed notion of what “math” is.
Common complaints such as “geometry proofs seemed pointless” and “when letters started showing up in math, I gave up,” reveal that we need to improve how we talk about math with our students.
Changing this mindset requires that everyone—educators, parents, caregivers, and community members—work together. We need to reframe and accurately define what math is: a tool for using and improving logical thinking skills to make better sense of the world.
As a first step, we need to re-align on how we’ll respond to the most commonly heard frustration about math: “When are we ever going to use this?” Here are some new suggestions for how to answer this question the next time someone asks it:
“That’s a great question! Being curious is an essential part of math. You’re probably asking this because at some point you were told, ‘math is important because you’ll use it in the real world.’ First off, whoever told you that had good intentions. They wanted to motivate you because sometimes math will be challenging and we can more easily push through challenges when there’s a meaningful purpose or reward on the other side.
“Second, you deserve an apology because that statement is a half-truth. The true part is that math involves studying things like numbers, 3D objects, patterns, graphs and how to think logically about them. You’ll encounter all of those things nearly every day of your life, but probably not in the way we study them in school. What’s not true is the implication that you will see every math topic from school at some point later in life. If you study trigonometry in school, you might never see it or have a use for it ever again. But that doesn’t mean studying trigonometry is a waste of time. And it certainly doesn’t mean trigonometry isn’t part of the ‘real world.’
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“So here’s a better way to think about math. In math class, we’re learning a structured approach to logical reasoning and problem-solving. You’re doing this all the time in your other classes. The difference in math is that we’re analyzing logical things like numbers and shapes, which are less complex and more predictable than what you study in other classes. That makes math topics easier to reason about and understand.
“For example, the duck-billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but it has a bill and lays eggs, which are usually characteristics of birds. Living organisms aren’t logically consistent in the same way number systems are. In math, there aren’t outliers when classifying objects; all triangles have exactly three sides, and there’s no ‘duck-billed triangle’ that breaks the rules. In life and other subjects, there will usually be too many variables and unknowns to draw exact logical conclusions, like when meteorologists forecast a 50% chance of rain. But in math, we analyze simple things so we can also become better thinkers about more complex things.”
In addition to aligning on this narrative, districts can further reframe students’ mindsets about math by using standards-aligned content designed for diverse students that makes math more relatable, relevant, and engaging. Administrators can also leverage professional development that invites teachers to reflect on their own math mindsets and experiences overcoming math challenges so that we can better empathize with and support students. Finally, education technology tools can help students reason logically and make sense of math concepts with inherently engaging tasks and games based on real-world examples.
By defining math, its purpose, and its value accurately, we can shift students’ mindsets to be more positive about math and how it helps them in contexts far beyond the classroom.