Taking Fear Out of the Equation
So many people across the U.S. freely admit they don’t feel comfortable with numbers and equations.
Phrases like “I’m not a math person,” are flung around without caution. (I used to say it myself.)
For generations, kids were encouraged to solve math problems as though it were a race. Follow a set procedure to get to the right answer as fast as possible. The kids who got math, got it. The kids who didn’t? That’s ok, math’s not for everyone.
As a nation, our attitudes about math need to change. We should think about solving math problems as important a skill as spelling and reading.
Luckily, states, schools, and teachers across the nation are starting to get us all on the right track.
Most states are implementing high math standards and expect students to understand math, not just memorize steps. Teachers are using a variety of methods to help kids get to the right answers. They’re having kids draw out equations, asking them to break down and build up numbers in different ways, giving kids ways to solve problems in their heads, and bringing creative project-based lessons to their classrooms. Some of them are also changing the way kids are taught to approach and talk about solving challenging problems.
High school math teacher Michael Gallin is a wonderful example of this changing attitude toward math instruction. Rather than getting his students to race to the right answer when he puts a complex equation on the board, he’s focusing on trying to take away his students’ fear and doubt about their math skills and encouraging them to take the time to think through how to solve a challenging problem.
According to Gallin:
“To help struggling students get ahead, teachers must also attack the emotional barriers holding them back. Repeated failures, they say, can be deeply scarring. Negative feelings spiral into damaging self-talk that eventually paralyzes students.
“They are afraid of being wrong,” said Gallin. “And that fear of being wrong cripples them.”
Realizing that the mental barriers of being scared to be wrong or too slow were getting in the way and stopping his kids from even attempting to solve problems, Gallin decided to change his approach. Embracing New York’s math standards which encourage multiple approaches, using visual tools, and group work, he noticed real changes.
“He encouraged them to visualize the problem, to test a variety of different strategies for solving it, and to practice talking about their strategies and hearing the strategies used by other students.”
Gallin wants his students to get the right answer but also wants them to have the space to see where they went wrong with a problem so that he can help them get to the correct answer and learn from their mistakes.
Turns out, taking the fear out of being wrong has resulted in his students getting even more answers right:
“After the June Regents exam, 25 of the 41 students who had repeatedly failed the state test passed — a rate of 61 percent. Another 12 students came within a few points of passing. In 2016, a mere 37 percent of the school’s test-takers passed.”
And luckily for the rest of the country, Gallin isn’t the only one taking this approach:
“With the help of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, hundreds of teachers across the country are testing their own ways to re-energize students plagued by past failures through merging specific emotional skills with academic ones.”
As states continue to implement high standards and teachers continue to use different problem-solving approaches with their students, it’s important to remember that so much of our negative feelings and self-doubt around math are cultural, and not based in truth about our potential.
At the Collaborative for Student Success, we feel passionately that everyone can be good at math. We realize that different learning approaches and ways of problem solving resonate with different people. And we strongly believe that the standards most states have adopted in recent years are helping our kids become more comfortable with math – and more importantly, better at it.
We must give every child the chance to become “a math person.” We must take the fear out of math, and let learners dare to take on a challenge.
Ashley Inman is the Director of Digital Media at the Collaborative for Student Success