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!

 

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

Learning Math in Real World Contexts

I was waiting for my pizza at a local pizzeria today and something struck me.  I have been reading Bruno Nardini’s, Portrait of a Master: Leonardo that covers the life of Leonardo Da Vinci.  There was a time in school where he became very unsatisfied with the way subjects were abstractly and vaguely taught.  He wanted something more concrete, something he could put his hands on, much like his personal studies of nature.

In a way, it seemed he wanted to learn with a purpose in mind, perhaps within a more concrete context.  Maybe he wanted to learn in a way that allowed him to see the application of the topic.  It then hit me, I’m often asked by my math clients – why do I need to learn this?  How will I be able to use this?  In a way, they are asking me the same thing Da Vinci might have asked someone of his class work. Continue reading

Why are Mistakes Necessary?

Mistakes are often penalized in our current educational system.  For instance, you raise your hand with a wrong answer and it’s often followed by “wrong, anyone else?”  Or you receive a grade on a test without ever exploring your mistakes in depth to learn what was done incorrectly and how it could have been approached differently or why it was very close but simply off by one or two minor details.  Another demonstration of this punishment system is the rewards and positive labels that are assigned to students that make few or no mistakes and conversely the negative labels assigned to those that do make mistakes.  Just imagine how poorly Thomas Edison would have scored in a class dubbed “Making a Light Bulb.”  He would have been “wrong” over 1,000 times! Continue reading

Building Your Math Toolbox

If you have ever put together a piece of furniture or completed a do-it-yourself project at home you have probably pulled out a toolbox and used your tools on an as needed basis.  Perhaps you had to hammer a nail into a wall and located your hammer to do so.  Every now and then though, you cannot find that hammer and are faced with the challenge of hammering in that nail another way.  You look around and find something that might work even if not originally intended to do so.

This is what we do, we solve problems with whatever means available to us.  We all do it in some way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, an accountant, a student, a drug dealer, or a mobster.  You do what you have to with the resources available to you.  The same goes for math students.  I introduce every student I work with to the concept of the mathematician’s toolbox.  As we move from one topic to the next I make sure they understand that this is another opportunity to build their toolbox and make it more complete.  As we approach new topics I always ask them what tools can we use to solve some of these problems before even exploring the new tools.  Continue reading

Math – The Key to Unlocking Limitless Potential

I’ll never forget the day that a student asked my 8th grade teacher, “why do we need to learn science and math anyway?”  You could tell he was waiting to answer that question all year long!  His response was the following (not verbatim):  I won’t lie, you may not use many of the specific topics we are learning in this class, but science and math are much more than the specific topics.  They are a way of thinking.  Math and science teach you how to think logically and serve as exercises for your brain.  All of us use logic to solve our daily problems and challenges.  We also use it to evaluate opportunities and challenges.  Math and science help us reason logically through many of our decisions.

This really made an impression on me because it was at that moment that I realized if I was to stand the best chance of succeeding in school and subsequently in my career, I would need to make sure my brain was constantly being exercised. Continue reading