Six Simple Things You Can Do to
Help Change a Negative Math Mindset
How often have you started your year with students saying that they hate math? I don’t know about you, but I find that it happens every year…and when I ask why, students often can’t say....so,
I don't necessarily believe that it's math that students "hate" (though they think so). Instead, I believe it's something that happens or has happened in math classes that they dislike.
My goal is to help students like math class enough that they’ll open their minds to the possibility that math can be fun, interesting, and even helpful. This can be a challenge when some of them have had a negative math mindset for years.
I’ve found that a few simple actions/habits on my part seem to lead to improved student attitudes and the mindset that math might actually be a “likeable” subject. It's not necessarily the way I explain concepts (although I like to think I do that well:-), but more my attitude of acceptance that I think helps to change their attitudes.
Here are a few ideas I believe have helped my students develop a like (if not a love) of math.
1) Encourage students to ask questions and then be willing to take the time to answer them. Students often hesitate to ask questions, especially in front of the whole class, and especially at the beginning of the year. I start my year with an activity that encourages students to work together right from the start, to try to foster a comfort level that will encourage them to ask questions in class.
I constantly remind students to ask questions when we introduce and discuss concepts.
At the beginning of the year, students will typically start asking questions during group work time, and I take the time to answer, even if it takes me a little longer to get to other students. As the year progresses, and students see that I really do want questions and that I really will answer those questions, they become more comfortable asking questions in class. The more they ask, the more they learn. Yes, it takes extra time sometimes, but it’s worth it to me….I want them to develop deeper understandings and that happens through questioning.
2) Allow students to talk to each other about math. We know that many students love to talk! Why not encourage them to talk about math? Students often come to my class having had very little chance to talk about math with others, and they are surprised at how often I ask them to do so. They always have a talking purpose – often it’s discussion of the warm-ups they did for homework….what were the answers, how did they solve, why do they have different answers? Other times they work on problem solving together….what do they know, how would they approach the problem, where are they stuck? Talking about math is so important and they come understand that they can share their ideas freely.
3)Ask why. I ask why all the time. To begin with, students often think that me asking why means they are wrong, so they change their answers. But it doesn’t….it just means I want to know why they think what they’re thinking....I think this makes them feel valued. The more I ask them to justify their thinking, the more able they are to do so, and the more they like to explain….even if it’s not “right”- they know I'm not judging, I'm just listening. I love having them go to the board to illustrate their "whys." Some of them are super willing to do so at the start of the year, while others take a while. But by the end of the year, they feel comfortable explaining their whys.
4) Tell stories about math in real life. Last year, I told my students about the night my son (who was working as a server in a restaurant) got a $60 tip. I knew the total of the bill, and we were working on percents at the time, so we figured out what percent tip that was….I think it was somewhere around 50%! They were so interested, because it was about a real person. It was a short story, but those little tidbits really add to"math interest."
5) Be accepting of students’ thinking, explanations, and mistakes. This might be the most important thing you can do. Sometimes students are on the right track, and sometimes they aren’t....but making mistakes helps to grow the brain, so it's ok if they aren't on the right track. Yes, some math problems have one right answer, but when students are simply told “No, that’s not right,” they may shut down and tune out….feeling embarrassed about making a mistake or sharing "wrong" thinking. Peter Sims, writer for the New York Times, says that successful people “feel comfortable being wrong.” Students need to realize that they ARE doing some correct, valid thinking even if it leads them to the wrong answer. It can sometimes be challenging to take time in class to find the parts of student thinking that can be built on, to lead to the right answer. But as a math teacher, that’s part of my purpose…take students from where they are, ask them questions, share thoughts, accept their mistakes, understand what they’re thinking....and expand it or redirect it to help grow the concept in their minds. According to Jo Boaler, “One of the most powerful moves a teacher or parent can make is in changing the message they give about mistakes and wrong answers in mathematics.” When students observe you accepting and building from others' mistakes, they become comfortable sharing their own ideas.
6) Let them explore math concepts! I know it’s hard to take time to explore, especially when your math periods are short and you may feel pressure to “cover” material within a certain amount of time. But letting students explore math and play with math is so valuable! In Jo Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, she references brain research and the idea that, “If you learn something deeply, the synaptic activity will create lasting connections in your brain, forming structural pathways, but if you visit an idea only once or in a superficial way, the synaptic connections can “wash away” like pathways made in the sand.” She also references a Park & Brannon study that found that “...the most powerful learning occurs when we use different pathways in the brain...” Giving students time to explore math allows them to explore those pathways and think more deeply. This can only benefit them and build their foundation for the topics you'll teach.
At some point during the year, most of my “haters” stop hating math. They realize that maybe it’s not so bad, and they become willing to have conversations about math topics. They become willing to ask those questions in front of the class and explain their thinking about those tricky problems - even when they don’t know if they’re correct. They become willing to take risks because they know they won’t be judged or harshly told “sorry, that’s wrong.” And when they learn that their thinking wasn’t quite on track, they don’t feel judged or stupid...and their minds stay open to the learning.
For me, one of the best parts of teaching math is watching the metamorphosis of a child, from one who “hates” math to one who willingly goes to the front of the class to illustrate and explain his or her math thinking.
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Hi, I'm Ellie! I've been an educator for more than 20 years, teaching all subject areas at both the elementary and middle school levels.