Who knew that thinking we were not good at Math ≠ the Truth?

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photo by Sam Howzit CC BY 2.0

Well in advance of my ever becoming an educator came an episode of BBC’s Dr. Who, where the TARDIS traveller shared,

“You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” from Dr Who Episode – The Face of Evil Part 4 January 22, 1977

It seems very clear now, that we are capable of convincing ourselves of anything regardless of sensibility, social standing, or support system. It’s happening everyday in classrooms because it has been allowed to happen over and over this way since forever. I’ll use the short story below to illustrate how it might be playing out in a typical Math classroom.

Some others

It’s a Tuesday, or is it Wednesday? No matter, because it’s Mathday. A teacher shares the concept(s). Some respond with nods, others avoid eye-contact, and silent supplications of “please don’t ask me to explain this”. Students try to understand what’s being taught. Some get it faster than others. Seconds pass, then minutes. Teacher grows impatient with awkward silences and then ploughs on. As if in unison, the others begin to doubt whether they’ll ever get it? Some wonder in disbelief how the others don’t get it and repeat. At some point most educators will have learners floating in various states between being some or the others.

Suddenly, but with far less warning, an assessment is given and the results serve to separate some from the others. Followed by a false, yet difficult to overcome, opinion that Math ‘can’t be got’, and therefore  must be hated, simply because of the inability of others to solve all or some of the concepts taught and problems given. This imbalanced view negatively warps some mindsets one way or an other;

  1. They tie Math and other academic success to self-worth
  2. Students begin to doubt their abilities based on single results rather than embracing an attitude of process and progress instead of performance.
  3. Problem solving skills are mitigated out of the day by educators who feel they have to cover what’s in the text books rather than what’s needed by their students. In other words they are being taught to the test rather than being allow to test what they’re taught.
  4. Resilience is skill that goes further underdeveloped in favour of focusing on report card marks. Instead of emphasising growth from concept attainment, iterative thinking, and real life application opportunities students are made to live, breathe, and be measured by a singular method and measure.

Simply put, we can’t allow alternative facts, false beliefs, or misinformation to infect the minds of our learners and colleagues. Yes, teachers believe that they can’t do Math too. We need to stand in the gap to prevent and dispel destructive mindsets. For some students and teachers this means time to unlearn, a safe place to make mistakes, relearn, and start again.

If we equip our learners with the ability to re-frame their focus with confidence and arm them with problem solving tools we can erase the discourse of doubt that plagues so many. This will run counter to the mass instruction of the past, but it will be better than perpetuating the destruction any longer. We need to understand that we are works in process and success will look different from lesson to lesson and learner to learner.

Perhaps then, the breezy breath of fresh air will be felt as a change for the better by everyone? In the meantime, I will be moving the air about my classroom like a human tornado helping students understand that thinking they are not good at Math is does not equal the truth.

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