ANGELA FARMER: Trusting in Math | Opinion

While students need to learn a variety of subjects and an even greater expanse in subdivisions of that content, one subject remains critical in all conversations. Students need to master their math. Unfortunately, math is one of the least favored subjects by students at the primary level and even less adored when one questions high school students. According to recent article posted by Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge website, math is more than numbers. The article details how relationship-building and trust are integral to learning integers.

Based on this research, to establish the trust required for math mastery, educators have to become “more creative and flexible in the ways they present math to students and allow families into their classrooms to enhance student engagement.” Part of the reason so many students fear or even despise math comes from their fear of making a mistake and being embarrassed. More than perhaps any discipline, math is about building upon pre-existing knowledge. For students who never establish a solid foundation in math, this can create a long-term disaster.

In order to ensure that students are ready to learn, teachers have to be willing to accept the fact that math cannot just be about assigning grades. It has to be about securing the students in the knowledge that they are first and foremost prepared to learn the next steps. This means they have solid working knowledge of the prior content. The next crucial step is to support student learning in a manner that removes the fear of failure. Much like learning a new language, math has its own unique rules and orders of operation and even symbols. In order to master this new vernacular, teachers must be willing to also connect the mathematic principles with something relevant to the students’ interests. Rather it’s establishing the reason to do averages is to calculate select baseball players’ home run averages or to learn division so that one can decide which size peanut butter is the better deal, it is critical that the students see a justification to learn the new language. Furthermore, there must be time and flexibility in the way the concept is both introduced, practiced, and evaluated.

Rather than simply following along in the book and practicing the exercises for a scheduled test, “math educators need to create classroom spaces that are both affirming and motivating while providing students with opportunities to collaborate and independently problem solve.” Allowing the students to work collectively to solve a problem may also be assisted by manipulatives like blocks or cubes or break-away spheres so that they can see and touch parts of a whole to realize and compare fractions and percentages.

While there are certainly critical concepts that must be taught along the continuum, there is no reason why the content should be taught in isolation or worked without assistance. The more students can learn in dynamic settings, the better equipped they will be to actually apply their critical concepts both in life and in the successive mathematics courses which follow.

An excellent take away from the article details how practitioners need to move away from the “skill versus will” comparison. Students typically don’t do poorly because they aren’t trying hard enough, they don’t do well because they haven’t developed the requisite skills to perform. In order to develop these skills, students need a variety of contexts and settings in which to witness, practice, and learn. Environments where being wrong is looked upon as the first step toward doing it right inspire students to keep trying. Such flexible learning environments are key to creating students who love to learn because they are not afraid of making a mistake. They recognize the relevance to the skills that they are developing and are allowed to incorporate the skills into their long-term learning, one problem at a time.

DR. ANGELA FARMER is a lifelong educator, an author, and a syndicated columnist. She serves Mississippi State University as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Honors Education for the Shackouls Honors College where she can be reached at [email protected]

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