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Debunking the Math Myth

THE MYTH: SOME PEOPLE ARE “MATH PEOPLE” AND

SOME PEOPLE ARE NOT

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If you have been around education for any amount of time, it’s likely that you have heard someone say “I’m just not a math person.”  Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I’m here to tell you that this is just.not.the.case!  Everyone has the ability to learn and understand math.

Growing up, I always loved math and I knew I was a “math person.”  My mother was a “math person” (a math teacher to be exact) and she convinced me I was a “math person” too.  I have loved math for as long as I can remember and I am confident my math roots started at home.  But is it possible, that is was that math-nurturing environment that made me open to math, and not a different style of brain?

You see, the myth goes something like this . . . You have a math brain or you don’t.  You are born with it or you’re not. You’re either right-brained or left-brained.  A math brained (aka left-brained) person usually thinks more analytically and in more orderly fashion.  Left-brained people are usually categorized as objective, analytical and good at math.  However, the right-brained person is seen as more artistic, creative, emotional and had a higher propensity for language (oh yeah – and NOT very good at math)!
The foundation of all math skills is number sense, and we must build a strong sense of the value and relationship of numbers in our students.  Students need to “do” math – they need many opportunities to think through problems and solve problems.  It is this thinking part of math that helps students make the connections between numbers.  Sure there is a time and place for memorization but, if students don’t understand the concepts behind what they are memorizing they are never going to truly understand math.
“Ever wondered where this right-brained/left-brained thing came from?  I’ll share what I found out at the end of the post.”  
What about you?  Did you grow up thinking you were “math person” or “not a math person”? Everyone I asked could answer this question and they knew exactly what I was talking about.

You guys – this makes me so sad! Sad because 60-70 years of students have grown up believing something that wasn’t true.  Sad because I see adults, students, teachers, and friends who believe this myth and it has affected their lives, their self-esteem and their futures.  Sad because this myth is just not true.  It is a myth and in the words of my TV friends Adam and Jamie – this myth is B.U.S.T.E.D!

Recently, a Stanford University math professor, Jo Boaler, and author of Mathematical Mindsets, shared that new brain research shows that EVERYONE, with the right teaching and messages, can be successful in math.  Yes, there is a small part of the population with a mathematical learning disability, but studies show this is only around 5% of the population.  You can read more about her research here.

When I read this conclusion from Dr. Boaler, my brain did a little dance.  It was something that I knew inside me to be true, and something I desperately wanted my students to believe and live out.  You see, even at a young age, some of my students already believe they are “not math people” and I want to be part of changing that.
Are You a Math Person?  Are some people math people and some are not?

So what do we do now?

Well, in the 1990’s a study was done with kindergarten students.  This study found that any student, even those most at risk for failing in math, could be at the top of their class as long as it was taught in a way that gives the child the opportunity to understand it. 

That means its up to us – the teachers.  It’s time to expand our knowledge base and teaching methods.  It’s time for us to teach that although math may have one answer, there are many ways to get there.  It’s time for us to teach our students the different ways to see, think about and do math.

I know what you are thinking – who’s got time for that?  Well, I challenge you to think of it differently.  For the sake of our kids, who doesn’t have time for that? 

A great starting point is Dr. Jo Boaler’s book Mathematical Mindsets.  She does so much of the laborious work for us.  She’s done the research and clearly lays out the best mathematical tasks we should be teaching our students. Just as children’s language and vocabulary abilities grow based on the experiences they have, so do their math abilities.  Dr. Boaler believes that the brains ability to be successful in math has more to do with a person’s “approach to life, the messages they receive about their potential, and the opportunities they have to learn.”  Math is about a mindset, and we as teachers can start modeling a positive math mindset to our students.
1. Building a Strong Number Sense
The foundation of all math skills is number sense, and we must build a strong sense of the value and relationship of numbers in our students.  Students need to “do” math – they need many opportunities to think through problems and solve problems.  It is this thinking part of math that helps students make the connections between numbers.  Sure there is a time and place for memorization (can you say math facts) but . . . if students don’t understand the concepts behind what they are memorizing they are never going to truly understand math.
2. Make Problem Solving a Priority
We also need to provide students with a variety of approaches for problem-solving.  Every student will have a different light bulb moment – and it’s our job as teachers to reword, reteach, or find a new way to model the problem-solving process to help each student have that ‘aha’ moment.
3. Student-Centered Learning
In many subjects, we have seen a shift to more student-centered learning.  Teachers have stepped back from lecturing and taken on the role of guiding students through the thinking process of their learning.  I dare say it is time we take this approach in math too.  Sure, there are some rules or formulas students must learn, but once that is done, let them do the explaining, answering questions, and problem-solving.  We are always there to guide and correct misconceptions, but sometimes it’s the explanation of a fellow student that helps more than what we can say.
4. Help Math Connect to the Lives of Our Students
Math should always be taught in context to something our students can relate to.  Studies have shown that any learning happens faster when a connection to real life is made.  Especially for younger students, connecting the abstract concepts of math to concrete examples is an important part of learning foundational math skills.
5. Start With the Concrete
Our primary aged students start with manipulatives as they learn a new skill.  It’s a lot easier to see the process of addition when you take 2 blocks and 3 blocks and push them together to see a new group of 5 blocks.  This helps our students so much more than just memorizing 2+3=5.  As students learn the concrete they have more success moving into the abstract because they can make that brain connection.  Allowing students to talk about, write about and draw math is a great first step!
In the next few weeks, I am going to show you an in-depth look into my classroom and our math block.  I’m going to show you what I consider to be best practices, and my attempts at implementing them.  I’m going to do my very best to give you practical, easy to implement ideas for your classroom.  Until then – I want to challenge you to do this one thing – talk about math in a positive way in your classroom and around your students.  Find math in your everyday activities and celebrate it.  Start laying the foundation of making math a wonderful thing!
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P.S.

Side Note – but so worth that rabbit trail!  I started wondering about this left brained/right brained thing and did a little digging.  It appears that this idea began in the 1950’s and 1960’s and was based on the research of Nobel Peace Prize winner Roger Sperry.  You see, his research showed that the brain did in fact have different hemispheres and that different functions happened in different locations of the brain.  But, brain researcher Jeffery Anderson from the University of Utah concludes that while "[i]t is certainly the case that some people have more methodical, logical cognitive styles, and others more uninhibited, spontaneous styles, this has nothing to do on any level with the different functions of the [brain's] left and right hemisphere.  Separating the brain's two halves into “logical” and “emotional” hemispheres appears to be a function of pop psychology, not science. The pop-culture idea (creative vs. logical traits) has no support in the neuroscience community and flies in the face of decades of research about brain organization.  You can read more about Dr. Anderson’s research here.

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