Math still takes their Lunch Money!

As a subject, math is still the academic bully that many kids face everyday.  It corners them, pressures them, intimidates them, and leaves their confidence shattered.  Math still takes some kids’ lunch money and I am struggling with how we can put an end to it.

It seems as though you either get math or you don’t.  It also seems to be the only subject where it’s permitted for adults to admit they’re not very good at it either. As Kyle asked/commented on my blog about confidence (Jan. 27), do you ever hear a parent or student proudly announce that they can’t read? But with Math it’s OK? Why?

Maybe it’s the nature of the subject itself. Maybe we’re asking students to be far more abstract that their stage of development allows.  When my daughter was in the third grade, she had a homework question that asked her to “Draw as many shapes as she could with 2 parallel lines.” She did that. “Now write about them.”  That was the question…what kind of question is that to ask of a third grade student? Now write about them?  Then again, we talked it through, I helped her understand the intent of the question and she got it, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe it’s the way we teach it. Maybe we just quite haven’t figured out the best way to organize our instruction. We have the manipulative toolkits, but have we figured out how to use them as both lead and remedial instructional tools? Or maybe our youngest students do need more drill-and-kill to master the essential skills necessary to be successful.  But then again, I’ve given enough blackline masters to enough struggling students to know it did nothing to improve their skills, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe Math teachers were too successful when they were in school. Since most Math teachers have loved Math since they themselves entered Kindergarten, maybe they just don’t have the empathy for kids who don’t get, or even like, Math.  Maybe the idea of not getting it just doesn’t compute?  Then again, I taught Math, I loved Math, yet I had empathy for those who struggled.  I’ve since Lisa West, Dave Killick, and countless other Math teachers spend hours with struggling students to help them get over the hump, so maybe it’s probably not that.

Maybe it’s the language of Math. Why do we say ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ when we know those aren’t proper math terms?  Maybe we need to teach the proper language of math earlier on and use it consistently throughout the grades. Product, quotient, difference, area, diameter, quadratic formulas, it’s all very confusing.  Irrational numbers, really? Maybe the words get in the way. ∏?  What in the world is ∏? In Math there is only one correct answer yet we have a number that goes on forever? If we going to ask our students to speak this foreign language then we better explicitly teach it to them. Some kids do make it through, but maybe it is a little of this.

Maybe Alan Schoenfeld is right?  In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Schoenfeld said that you master mathematics if you are willing to try. That success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. Maybe he’s on to something.  Maybe our students give up too quickly?  Maybe we do too? Maybe we begin to compartmentalize math students too early as haves and have-nots. It could be some of this.

Maybe it’s all of the above; maybe it’s none of it.  All I know is that I am going to maximize my twenty-two minutes trying to figure it out.

8 thoughts on “Math still takes their Lunch Money!

  1. Great post. I will read it again and again as I analyze my math teaching and approach. I would love to hear what you think of Arthur Hyde’s research and book, Comprehending Math. That book suggests that we use cognitive strategies, similar to those in Mosaic of Thought, to promote math workshop.

    I believe that math ed needs a multi-faceted approach including:
    workshop model
    project-base learning
    inquiry
    skill lessons, practice (I like what the computer offers for practice)
    models – analyzing, creating, observing

    Again, thanks for posting.

    • Thanks for your comments Maureen. I will check out Arthur Hyde’s work and let you know what I think. We are really getting serious about how we do math in our district. I agree with the multi-faceted approach you present. We have to allow kids to come at math from multiple perspectives…one size has not fit all for decades…time to try something else.

  2. Hello Tom,
    Thanks for the link to this on Twitter. It is a great, and thoughtful post that you have put up here.

    Throughout school I was one of the students who did not ‘get’ math. I still don’t for the most part. I can help students from time to time but engaging in complex operations is something that I really am unable to do without a lot of persistence and struggle. Imagine my shock at having to teach Math 7 last year.

    I was generally worried about it, but also because it was my first time teaching at this level as well. It meant that I had far too many subjects to prep for – as a result I mainly focused on Math and English and let the others fall where they did.

    I told the students outright that I had been horrible in Math during school – that I did not ‘get’ it, and that I failed two Math courses during school. I think it was a relief for some of the lower students simply because of the pressure to understand math.

    What I also found is that the program in use right now (Math Makes Sense) with its emphasis on representation of concepts in different ways was not only difficult for myself but also for the students as well. Number lines and manipulatives went, for the most part, out the window. My lower students were confused by having to do this and those who were ESL learners had a difficult time with the language barrier posed by this new program.

    All of the students I had last year are doing fairly well in Math in Grade 8, which to me is a relief, however, looking at your post in relation to my own experiences I think there are three things that need to be improved.

    1. The language of math – as you point out this needs to be consistent. It needs to be taught and reviewed at every turn so that it becomes second nature when talking about math.

    2. Personalized instruction – not every kid is going to ‘get’ it but teaching to a class of thirty does not help those students. Sometimes you need to get away from standardized instruction and look at projects etc. as Maureen(above) mentioned.

    3. Specialization – To implement both of these you need to have teachers who specialize in math at all levels. You can’t just throw the surplus PE teacher into a math classroom and expect positive results. The times that I was most successful in Math in school was when I had teachers who knew what they were teaching and could explain it in ways other than what was in the teachers guide.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Paul – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think the language is a big deal and we have to give it our attention. It is tough when everyone’s teaching assignment doesn’t fall exactly into place. The reality is that people want/need and are entitled to full-time work, yet we don’t always have the perfect loads for them. That’s the reality of school that I think we need to be mindful of when we throw the next ‘thing’ at people without giving them the tools/training to do it properly. We can’t forget that teachers – especially ms teachers have other classes to prep for. I’m sure your students really appreciated your honesty about your own experience in school. Thanks again for your comments!

  3. I like the way you listed the four steps to hopelessness for students in Math. Maybe the key would be to reverse the order: restore confidence, empower them, relieve pressure and liberate them. One step at a time…can we find ways to restore confidence by giving students the work at the right level to enable success. That’s where flexible groupings and differentiated instruction enter the picture.

    • I agree David. Maybe Math is one of those subjects where flexible groupings across multiple grade levels might make sense. Not isolating kids, but grouping them by ability – they move on when they’re ready. They’re groupings are fluid based upon areas of strength, etc. I don’t really know yet, but I know what we currently do isn’t working! Thanks for your comment, David.

  4. This post has been an underlying thought I have had for the last three years of my education. I am a pre-service secondary teacher trying to become a math teacher.

    A couple weeks ago we had a class about just this, we read an article called I Hate Mathematics by Paul Swan http://bit.ly/hmVT9z basically talking about the attitude towards math teachers. Just from my experience in my own schooling I have noticed that everyone just hates math! All of the approaches that you have mentioned were the reasons that my class had come up with to explain that. We watched this youtube video, http://bit.ly/hqVJ1 and I realized that I’m going to have a really difficult task ahead of me. How am I going to be able to get around this negative attitude towards math!

    The positive is that, at least at the University of Regina, the aspiring math teachers think about these things. We actually do think about this and reflect upon the ways to counter this. The negative is that we aren’t the only people teaching math. Only the secondary teachers get to have this approach to math, what about the elementary teachers? Middle years? Those people have to teach math too, and at the most crucial times. I can’t even count how many fellow pre-service teachers I hear telling me about how much they hate math. Those are the people who are going to be building the supports for math until they finally get to me, in secondary, and they are already fostering a negative attitude towards math!

    Maybe its about who surrounds you. Like in your post it seems to be that it is socially acceptable to be bad at math yet not to be illiterate. How many parents let their students be bad at math because they themselves had a bad experience with it? If a kid says they don’t have a math brain, where did they get that? Pretty sure an elementary student is not coming up with that on their own, they had to hear it from somewhere.

    Math has been approached in the wrong ways for a long time, it needs to change. In order for that change to be affective there needs to be more teachers reflecting on all of the things brought up in your post.

    • I really appreciate your comments Samantha. It is nice to see that new teachers are being asked to think about all of these things. I am definitely going to check out the links you’ve provided. Thanks!

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