What is the Greatest Barrier to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the biggest challenge in teaching math to students of any age.  He mentioned he is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it, as did many of his friends.

The toughest cases that I’ve worked taught me that all people are pre-wired for math because they reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  We are constantly running complex algorithms to make decisions and conclusions in situations that deal with friends, family, sports, and other challenging and high pressure situations.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in math every day, several times a day, without knowing it.

So if lack of wiring for math isn’t the problem, then what is? 

What if the problem has nothing to do with the teaching and learning of math?  What if the problem is unrelated to math?

For the last 10 years, I have been working with math students from 10 to 50 years old.  I have worked with students in a variety of circumstances, including:  private coaching, classroom, workshops, and small group.  The stakes were varied and included: scholarships, graduation requirements, grades, and jobs.  Often times, these situations were of critical urgency with little time to achieve the goal – one time I only had 2 weeks to help a student double their score on an entrance exam in order to start that fall.

A few years into200438089-001 teaching math, I pursued a masters degree in psychology focused on executive coaching because I felt it would be the most helpful on my journey to helping people grow their abilities in math, business, or life.  When I needed to practice executive coaching for my course work, I turned to my students.  They were my young “executive” clients who facing challenges in math.  It was the practice of executive coaching that lead me to discover the biggest barrier to learning to learning math.

The single most important factor to learning math was something that holds us back in so many other areas of life – confidence.

When I work privately with students, I always spend the first several sessions addressing confidence and the limiting beliefs that erode it.  In those first few sessions, I draw out their most powerful negative thoughts and limiting beliefs so that I can challenge them directly.  I start by breaking up their limiting beliefs into smaller thoughts that I can disprove one at a time.  But that’s not enough because as we know, seeing is believing.

Next I show them that they can do math by identifying their skill level, giving them a relevant problem to solve, and increasing the challenge one degree at a time until they achieve their first breakthrough.  This is where their confidence starts to build.  It is only after I have put a dent in their limiting beliefs and caused them to start doubting some of their negative thoughts that we can really begin to work on math.  Any efforts to help my students learn math before that is a waste of everyone’s time.  In all of my experience working with math students, I have learned that if I address confidence first, I position my students for significant growth and development in math.

Looking ahead and more broadly I believe we can thoughtfully design math curriculum and pedagogy to incorporate confidence-building language, growth mindset, and comfort with failure.

I envision a classroom culture where we celebrate and learn from failure, we encourage and reward improvement, and finally, where students look forward to increasing challenges.

I’ll leave you with this.  If you are looking to make breakthroughs and drive massive growth in your classroom, here are a few strategies I applied in my classrooms to build confidence and drive a growth mindset:

  • Fist bumps and high fives if you raised your hand and got the answer wrong – ALL THE TIME.  Consistency is key!  If you celebrate failure, eventually students will learn to not fear it so much.  This opens the door to learning from failure.
  • When students did work on the board, I showed no interest in the final answer.  I asked them present their thought process and work before they even mentioned their answer.  If their process and approach was sound, they got a high five or fist bump, whether the final answer was right or wrong.  If the answer was wrong, I asked them to find and fix the error while another student started presenting their work.
  • Students received a grade bonus if they averaged a growth rate of 5% from quiz to quiz; the class received a grade bonus if the average class grade grew at an average rate of 5% from quiz to quiz, test to test.  These bonuses were implemented to encourage individual performance and supporting your classmates to achieve a class goal that benefits all.

Thoughts, comments, questions?  Share them below!


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