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“I’m Just Not a Math Person”

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Becoming a Math Person: Why Students Develop an Aversion to Mathematics – and How Teachers Can Help Change Their Minds” by Leah Shafer in Usable Knowledge, January 16, 2016,
In this Usable Knowledge article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Leah Shafer explores the all-too-common dynamic of a student struggling with a math problems, giving up, and saying: “I just can’t get this. I’m not a math person.” Of course the idea that there are “math people” and “not math people” is a social construct, says Shafer: “It stems from the belief that math intelligence is a fixed trait, rather than something that grows and develops with hard work and opportunities to learn.” Students who believe they are not “math people” feel outside mathematics – that math doesn’t belong to them, that it’s not useful to interpreting and navigating the world; it’s just something they have to memorize for tests.
The good news is that it’s possible to change a student’s negative attitudes toward math. Some key steps:
• Shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. Students can be taught to make this shift – that through determination and hard work they can be good at math.
• Create opportunities for cooperative learning. “When students learn from each other by discussing problem-solving strategies,” says Shafer, “they discover new techniques for approaching problems and new attitudes that help them persevere.”
• Give students the chance to productively struggle. Rather than simple right/wrong computational problems, teachers should assign meaty problems that invite students to find their own solutions. Teachers should give students enough time to wrestle with problems and try a new approach if they reach a dead end.
• Encourage participation, even if the student doesn’t have the right answer yet. “If there’s a threat of being wrong every time I raise my hand, and being wrong is a bad thing, then very quickly I decide math isn’t for me, I don’t like this, I’m not a smart person,” says Noah Heller of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Teachers need to frame wrong answers as opportunities for learning and get students sharing tentative answers without fear of failure.
• Re-envision math as a language. Math students should feel they can claim ownership over the language of math in the same way that English language learners claim ownership over English. Math students need to feel they are insiders, able to construct knowledge, and can gain access to skills and tools that will be truly useful in their lives.

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