Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

Feeling Good About Being “Bad” at Math

Rethinking how we communicate our values in the classroom

There seems to be a unique anxiety built into most people’s feelings about math that does not exist in other academic or creative domains. There is an unwillingness to “play” or “get messy” or “take risks” when working with numbers that needs to be better understood by teachers and unlearned by students. This change in mentality around mathematics and the embracing of a positive math mindset is the spark that can start a smoldering inquisitiveness around numbers that is foundational for real growth. A teacher and their framing of success, the value of any and all work production, and the positive reinforcement students get for making attempts to solve problems can ignite a fire of learning in any math classroom.

As a Special Education teacher, I have always worked with students who by definition “struggle” in some or many aspects of a math curriculum. I see most students as unwilling to even make attempts at questions that are beyond the scope of what they perceive as their acquired math knowledge. This fragility and learned helplessness can come as a result of classrooms they have been a part of, where math has been treated as a linear and finite discipline.

This anxiety stems from the roots of the traditional teaching methods. When students are young, they are taught that math is concrete and inflexible.  Mathematical operations give you definitive answers to questions, and that value system of correct or incorrect is transferred to students. A simple shift in thinking (and practice) such as looking at numbers through bonding–and, in turn, experimenting with a variety of number sentences that can be called “true” rather than “correct”–is an amazing example of how quickly a different approach can encourage a more experimental approach towards learning math. With experimentation come inquiry and incorrectness, which often carry more value than knowing and correctness.

One of the foundational approaches for learners who struggle is to use multiple modalities when asking students to engage with a concept or skill. The neuroscience behind the parts of the brain and how they are all involved in learning math is fascinating. Challenge is the key to growth but students have to be encouraged when they are challenged. A positive mindset and classroom culture of embracing and rewarding attempts at accessing “challenging” work is essential to student growth. I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but Marilyn Burns is an exceptional resource in this field.

Watching my own understanding of math grow along with the many different approaches to learning, understanding, or communicating mathematics has objectively and measurably shown benefits for my students. I encourage everyone to make an attempt at creating a less punitive, more positive classroom environment for students to engage with mathematics.

4 thoughts on “Feeling Good About Being “Bad” at Math

  1. In-home learning this past year.
    The “new” math is hard for parents/grandparents to understand. So the students figure that if Mom or Grandma can’t do it, how do they expect ME to do it?
    If you expect these kids to have help with their homework, you had better make it simple enough for the “old folks”.
    Grandpa wasn’t that great at math and no one starved. Unless you are going to be an engineer you probably aren’t going to need much math. That’s why they invented calculators.
    I’ve taken algebra,geometry, trig, and rarely use anything but addition, subtraction, and multiplication, division. The reason for math is character building to learn that you can’t be good at everything.

  2. My grandson who is in 4th grade struggles greatly with math. He has ADD and issues with focus and output. He gets so frustrated by the many different ways of expressing math functions. A worksheet from this week asked him to show subtracting fractions in 4 different ways. 3 desired answers were easy, but I still can’t figure what was wanted for the the 4th. This was needlessly frustrating. He understands the concept and knew the correct answer. Some kids just need to be shown one way to do a math problem. He needs to be taught so he can learn. Cookie cutter teaching methods are not working and he feels like a failure! He is afraid that he will be kicked out of school because he can’t answer 50 multiplication equations in 3 minutes! I hate what “school” is doing to his self esteem. It is breaking my heart.

  3. I was terrible at math once we got past basic algebra. After 8 years USAF engineers. 30 years LE. We ran our own business in Alaska, lodging and guiding. My partner who was seldom there, was a retired banker and checked the books. He was amazed at how close my figures were to actual intake and profits. (Each year!). Simple addition, subtraction served me well.

  4. I love the idea of this perspective shift. However (maybe I haven’t had enough coffee yet this am!) but I don’t understand your sentence about “looking at numbers through bonding”? Are you referring to “number bonds”, like 3,4 & 7? Or?

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About the Author: NYC Teaching Fellow via Brooklyn College + 10 years in NYCDOE District 2. Currently teaching and learning in Dutchess County, NY. Follow him on Twitter @teachermanmatt and visit his website