Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully?

But what if the problem isn’t the “how?”  What if the problem lies in a barrier preventing us from doing what we so naturally do already?  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 of varied ages (8 years old through 45 years old).  I have worked with students in a variety of contexts (i.e. private, classroom, workshops, small group) with a multitude of goals (i.e. scholarships, graduation, grades, passing, jobs, etc.) at stake.  Some of these situations were the equivalent of getting the basketball in your hands with 3 seconds left to shoot in the 4th quarter when you are down by 1 point – for both the student and me.

A few years into200438089-001 teaching math, I began work on my masters in psychology which was focused on executive coaching and leadership development.  I purposely sought this degree because I felt it would be the most helpful on my journey to helping people succeed whether in math, business, or life.  When I needed to practice the methods of executive coaching, I turned to my students.  They were my young “executive” clients facing challenges in math.  It was the practice of executive coaching that lead me to discover what could be the silver bullet to learning math.  From my experience, I have concluded that the single most important factor to learning math was something that holds us back in so many other realms of life – confidence.

When I have the opportunity to work privately with students, I always spend the first several sessions attacking confidence.  In those sessions, I have to draw out the most powerful negative thoughts and beliefs and take them head on.  This requires challenging each and every one of them, breaking them up into smaller nuggets that I can disprove, and then accusing my client of lying to me when we started.  What is the lie you ask?  The lie is that they can’t do math.  Or that they suck at math.  This is lie they tell me and themselves when we start.  I have to show them that they can do math and then begin building their confidence from there.  It is only after I win the case against their perceived ineptitude that we can even begin to practice math.  Any efforts to help my students learn math before that is a waste of everyone’s time.

I’m not one to believe in silver bullets.  And this probably does not fit the definition of one since it is anything but simple.  However, I do believe confidence is the single-most important barrier to learning math (and just about anything for that matter).  If we spend time attacking negative self-talk, win the case against perceived ineptitude, and help students build positive interrogative self-talk, we will be able to achieve the significant impacts we are looking for in math education in this country.  As for our students-to-be, – our babies, our toddlers – we can thoughtfully design math curriculum and pedagogy to integrate confidence-building language, strategies, and exercises.  I don’t mean coddling our little ones.  What I mean is teaching students in a manner that builds confidence along the way.  Developing a growth mindset, teaching students interrogative self-talk, encouraging and rewarding improvement, embracing and learning from failure, etc.

Here’s one way you can start building confidence in your classroom or teaching context right away.

Every time a student says “I can’t do this”, respond with “That’s not true, stop saying that.  You don’t yet have enough practice to do this successfully.  So let’s get back to practicing.”  You can also add, “The only thing that separates us is practice.”

When students say “I’m not as good as she is in math,” I respond with, “So what?  The only difference between the two of you is that she has practiced math more than you.  I’m sure there is something you have practiced more than she has.  Let’s not worry about her and instead get more practice.  You can get there too.  It’s not a race.”

Try these responses the next time you hear some negative self-talk from your math students.

 

 

 

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

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