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!

 

The Problem with the Silver Bullet in Education

What is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem you are trying to solve is complicated, such as education, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Complicated problems often have multiple variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. When we look for a silver bullet, we run the risk of investing significant sums of money in an unrealistic solution that will never deliver the expected returns.

Solving complex problems requires having an underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of expensive and comprehensive tools

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) committed over $1 billion for a silver bullet – to put aniPads in EDU iPad in the hands of each and every student in the district. Long story short, the initial roll-out proved to be a major failure and not because the devices lacked in performance. One of the key problems was that teachers only received a few days of training on the devices. Perhaps even more critical is the fact that, according to a published report by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.”

This is, unfortunately, an incredibly expensive case for the importance of having underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of pricey and comprehensive tools. According to Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Districts are starting with the technology [tool] and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding the technology [tool] in service of that.”

Until education identifies a problem and/or opportunity that requires technology as a means [tool] to address it, any implementation or mandated use of these tools and/or apps will be underutilized and run the serious risk of creating more problems than it even stood the chance to solve. In the case of the LAUSD, teachers reported significant levels of frustration, the iPads required more bandwidth than was readily available, and last by not least, it cost the district a significant amount of money (total proposed expenditure was estimated to be $1.3 billion when the entire project was complete).

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your school that you need to address – pick 1!
  • If you do not already have a model for addressing your problem/opportunity, design one that you and your team have the capacity and ability to execute
  • If you are struggling to identify or design a strategy, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth – talk to people impacted by problem/opportunity, talk to potential users of solution, look for existing research
  • With a strategy/approach set, Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you execute – what are others doing in your field and consider what are others outside of your field are doing with similar problems
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and people; be open to switching tools when necessary – problems and opportunities evolve and so will your needs

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.