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.

 

 

 

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.