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.