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Everybody is a Math Person
New ways of thinking and learning help to overcome math anxiety
How to be a “math person”? Step 1: do math, step 2: be a person.
As simple as it may seem, it is a powerful and reassuring message displayed on a little poster from scaffoldedmath.com in one of the FIS Elementary School’s math classrooms. And it is oh so true.
Math is all around us. We are using math all day long, even when we don’t realize it. Human brains are equipped to do math. Just like with other skills, math skills will become stronger for anyone who practices. Still, many of our students believe they are not a “math person”. Some say it early on, even in the lower Elementary Grades, and some research suggests that math anxiety can occur as early as age five. As one FIS student in Grade 5 explains, “I get really nervous when I have to do math because I know there is only one right answer, and I have to get to that one right answer.”Another Grade 5 student pulls her sleeves back and forth over her hands when confronted with a math question, her whole body tense and shoulders raised. Researchers have found that being anxious in itself has a negative impact on learning, because the working memory of the brain gets blocked with all the stress.
While thinking and talking about various math strategies can be helpful to some students, it can also be overwhelming for others.
So what can we do to reduce – or even better, prevent – this build-up of a fear of math? Alec Dettlaff, a Math support teacher in the FIS Upper School, says, “The learning tasks should be as engaging, meaningful and fun as possible. How can we expect students to be doing things that they do not enjoy or are not interested in, or are having negative experiences with?”
An example of engaging tasks are ones that students can think about and explore, building an understanding of the concepts with their peers. In a recent professional learning session for teachers at FIS, math specialist Graham Fletcher showed that problem-based lessons that foster students’ curiosity can start with something as simple as a wordless video or image that makes students think and wonder: what is happening and why?
Following the prompt, students can interact in pairs or groups to discuss the video, with guidance by the teacher who intentionally adds in key math vocabulary. Follow-up tasks continue to build up the conceptual understanding of what students have seen and discussed.
Conceptual understanding is extremely important for students’ development in math, according to FISW Math Coach and Middle School teacher, Gareth Rose. “It would be great if we could move away from testing with time pressure and even from grading. Why not give students projects in which they can show their understanding and put less emphasis on ‘the right answer’? In quizzes, I now give them the opportunity to choose the level to work on, to study more and continue working on them later. In the end, our goal is that students learn and improve their math skills.”
These ideas connect well with the approach of Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Fluency with numbers is often misinterpreted as memorizing math facts. The best way to develop fluency is to develop number sense, or as Dr. Boaler explains, “learning math facts along with deep understanding of numbers and the way they relate to each other”(Boaler, 2015). By using different brain pathways, including the one that involves intuitive and spatial reasoning, visual understanding is encouraged and students also learn facts through thinking about number strategies.
Sarika Sharma, Math Instructional Coach at FIS says, “For students to be considered fluent with their math facts, they must be accurate, proficient and flexible. These students are ultimately quick with their facts, not through memorization, which has no other application, but through understanding and meaningful practice. These are the building blocks to later mathematics. The ultimate goal is that students can think about and use numbers flexibly.”
With math classes becoming more “wordy,” where does that leave our English language learners? Using visuals like Graham Fletcher’s wordless videos help create a level playing field: all students can think and wonder just as deeply about what they have seen. Talking about it in pairs first is safe, and the following engaging group discussion helps develop their English skills along with their
10 FIS World June 2022
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