Happy February! I hope you are enjoying this blast of winter we are having after a relatively mild December and January. The cold weather isn’t stopping the construction on our new building – be sure to check out the webcam view of construction.
As we work to put together our curriculum, I have been doing a lot of research about math. Math tends to be a hot button issue in schools, perhaps because it’s viewed as linear, or perhaps because it’s viewed as easily quantifiable. I would guess that many people think that math is totally about ability – you either have it or you don’t. Right? Wrong.
I have been taking an online course through Stanford called “How to Learn Math for Teachers,” and it has been illuminating and affirming at the same time. Professor Jo Boaler has conducted a tremendous amount of research around math education and what she calls mathematical mindsets. Incidentally, if you want to learn more but don’t want to take the class, she has a book called Mathematical Mindsets.
In any case, Boaler’s work indicates a need for a huge shift in the way we teach mathematics. She shares several stories about people who were given, directly and indirectly, negative messages about their abilities in math at a young age – perhaps they hadn’t memorized their times table or they couldn’t add quickly in their heads. Well-meaning teachers and parents might have said things like, “It’s okay that you’re not good at math – I had a horrible time with it as well.” Messages like this imprint themselves in our minds, causing us to have a fixed mindset – a belief that our ability is fixed and cannot be changed despite our best efforts.
As it turns out, research on the brain completely contradicts this idea. We now know that our brains have a tremendous capacity to grow and develop, even in adulthood. So determining that some students are more capable than others, and grouping them by ability, completely goes against the idea that all students have the capacity to learn challenging math. When students hear messages that math just isn’t their thing, they give up easily. In fact, even when they have a fixed mindset that they are “good” at math, they give up easily when facing a challenge because they decide that they must not be good after all. Students instead need to hear messages that they will all face challenges and will make mistakes (and in fact should make mistakes).
In fact, this is another area of research that Boaler discusses. Scientists now know that brain growth occurs when people are grappling with challenging content: making mistakes, discovering those mistakes, working through those mistakes, and moving forward. If students are constantly getting the answer right, they are not learning as deeply as when they stumble, fall, and get back up. Studies have shown that teachers in the US often feel the need to jump in and “save” students when they are struggling because we view struggle as bad. Instead, we need to create an environment in our schools where students feel safe to go out on a limb and to be wrong. Only then can they celebrate struggle and really allow their minds to grow.
A third area of research that Boaler discusses is that when people are solving mathematical problems, they actually activate several different parts of the brain. When we make connections among different parts of the brain, through seeing different ways of solving a problem, for instance, we actually change and grow our brains, making our thinking more flexible. We educators need to celebrate the multi-dimensionality of math with our students, recognizing the beauty in finding multiple ways to look at and solve a problem.
It is so exciting to have the opportunity to start a school from scratch and to put all of this research into action in the way we teach. At Compositive Primary, we believe in creating a safe space where all of our students can feel loved and supported as they take risks and make mistakes. Our teachers will encourage students to explore math concepts in an open-ended way and using multiple strategies. We will help students develop a growth mindset, recognizing that their ability in math is absolutely not fixed. And, most importantly, we will help our students develop a deep belief that math is not a subject for the few but a beautiful and exciting world open for everyone.
Until next time,