You could almost call it math class drama. Or you could just call it sad:
“I’m not good at math.”
“Math is my worst subject.”
“It’s okay if you don’t understand. I wasn’t good at math either.”
Does this sound familiar? You’ve heard it in daily conversations, during homework time and on popular television programs. Somehow, it’s now okay to have a negative self-identity about mathematics, beginning in Kindergarten or even earlier.
During my 16 years as a classroom teacher, math specialist and instructional coach, I saw every day how negative both students and teachers could be about math. I noticed early on in my career that my students loved reading and writing and were excited by science and social studies. And art, music and P.E. were highlights of their day. But when it came to math, my classroom was a cacophony of groans and complaints. I knew something was missing — I was teaching math, but I wasn’t helping my students become mathematicians. For students, the learning was passive and joyless.
Math couldn’t be a tragedy. Something had to change.
While many of my colleagues began the school year by jumping straight into the curriculum, I took a different approach. I began by designing lessons that aimed to shape my students’ math identities — shifting the way they viewed mathematics and their role as mathematics learners.
My goal was to improve their ability to recognize their emotions, thoughts and behaviors, particularly during math, and to develop agency — their abilities to speak up, ask for help and influence their learning outcomes.
When I focused on improving my students’ self-awareness before digging into the core curriculum, I watched struggling students become math standouts. One third-grader had trouble with her math identity at first because she couldn’t remember math facts as readily as her peers. She worked primarily by herself, shying away from group work, most likely so no one would think she was “slow.” Through class discussions about all of the ways that people can be good at math, along with learning strategies for improving individual fluency, this student became a leader in collaborative problem-solving groups. She encouraged others to take their time and think through problems before choosing a solution pathway.
Here are four specific steps that teachers can take to improve their students’ math identities, and take the drama out of math class:
1. Throw out the negativity: Learning happens through struggle, making mistakes and perseverance, but teachers and students don’t always understand this reality. Teachers often view students’ lack of immediate understanding or skill as indicators that the work is too hard or that they are failing their students. Meanwhile, students are often reluctant even to attempt a challenging task for fear of not knowing how to solve it or not looking “smart.”
Both teachers and students can get caught up in negative thought patterns. When this happens, teachers should recognize the problem immediately and emphasize to students that it is unproductive. Then, teachers should try to flip the negativity on its head by framing teacher and student struggles in positive — not defeatist — language. When a teacher thinks or says, “My students can’t do this,” instead ask, “How might we support students without doing the work for them?” When students think or say, “This is too hard,” respond, “We know that learning can be hard and takes effort. Let’s take a break and come back to this when our brains are refreshed.”
2. Differentiate between students showing their own work and showing the teacher’s work: While many teachers establish general norms or expectations, mathematics learning calls for a bit more specificity. A typical math class might use a common norm, such as “show your work,” but this directive is too vague. Students might show work that the teacher modeled, robbing themselves of the opportunity to develop and show their own thinking. A better option: “We will show our own work using words, pictures or symbols because mathematicians need to explain and justify their thinking.” The what still exists — show our work — but now students have both a how (using words, pictures or symbols) and a why (because mathematicians need to explain and justify their thinking).
3. Do look back. But also forward, toward challenges: As I noted earlier, struggle leads to learning. However, our natural teacher instincts sometime push us to make challenging math easier for students. We break down problems, provide endless lists of steps to follow and even forgo multi-step tasks for basic one-step or computational tasks. That’s counterproductive. Easier work does not develop math brains.
To nurture students’ math identities, teachers must regularly give students challenging tasks and offer explicit feedback and chances for reflection. Reflection might include, for example, a discussion of how students have approached and made sense of a problem, their choice of tools and models, the accuracy and efficiency of their computational methods, and the reasonableness of their solutions. As students come to accept and even expect feedback and opportunities for reflection, their math identities mature.
4. Don’t shy away from feelings: In addition to reflecting on their mathematical thinking, students should also consider their feelings about the mathematics they are learning. A student may know his multiplication facts, but if he is extremely anxious about practicing those facts in the classroom, that knowledge is all but useless.
Teachers can provide opportunities to link emotions to math learning by ending class periods with a brief reflection time. How do students feel about the day’s lesson? How do they see themselves improving? Any areas in need of further development? Helping students recognize and acknowledge their feelings about daily work can assist them in developing the self-confidence and resilience they need to be productive learners of mathematics. Once I began using this approach, my students grew much more confident, a sign that they saw our classroom as a safe learning environment.
These strategies are good places to start, but in some ways they only scratch the surface of what we can do to help students begin developing more positive self-images in mathematics.
Without positive identities, many students will continue to find mathematics just out of reach. By striving to change the way children think about themselves as learners of mathematics, teachers can unlock the unique mathematician within each student who enters their classroom.
A former elementary-school math teacher, Joe Roicki is a program specialist on the professional development and implementation success team for Great Minds’ Eureka Math.