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Math Works at Baldwin: April 2015

Math Works at Baldwin: April 2015
Posted on 04/07/2015
From our Math Coach Ben Geiger

I recently read what I consider a great article about math learning and instruction, “The Mathematics of Hope: Moving from Performance to Learning in Mathematics Classrooms.” You’ll find the link to the article below. The author, Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, provides a succinct description of how math, more than any other subject, crushes a student’s confidence. Why is it that 3/5 of U.S. students currently fail mathematics? Below I provide you with highlights from the piece and offer some suggestions for activities you can do with your child to help promote their belief in themselves as a mathematics learner.

Many in the U.S. believe math is a gift—if you are not a math person you can expect to feel lost and at times tortured in school. Not so, says Boaler, “New scientific evidence showing the incredible capacity of the brain to change, rewire, and grow in a really short time suggests that all students can learn mathematics to high levels with good teaching experiences.”

As parents and teachers, the most important thing we can do is offer mathematics as a learning subject, not a performance subject. Math learning is truly not about the answer, the answer is just the result, the learning comes from the thinking and trying—praise the effort not simply the result.

“You learn from your mistakes” is a popular aphorism but it also happens to be true. Boaler writes, “Research has recently shown something stunning—when students make a mistake in math, their brain grows, synapses fire, and connections are made; when they do the work correctly, there is no brain growth.” What was math class like for you? For me and for many, it was about practicing a skill over and over again. This kind of repetitive practice, work without struggle, actually prevents you from learning. No wonder math was so hard—we were being taught not to learn.

We very much need to deemphasize speed, if we are going to encourage students to think of learning as hard thoughtful work. When I talk to kids about how they know someone is good at math, they always say, “It’s kids who get the answer first.” This just isn’t true but hard not to believe, especially if you are 8 years old. Many of us think more slowly and often more deeply which leads to more creative solutions and stronger connections. As Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m smarter than everyone else, it’s just that I’m willing to stay with a problem longer than anyone else.”

Here’s an example of hard thoughtful work from a Baldwin second grader. He was trying to solve the problem below, a “Put on Your Thinking Cap” puzzle from our Math In Focus textbook.
Sally and Hans started counting at the same time.
Sally counted on by tens from 300.
Hans counted back by hundreds.
After six counts, they had reached the same number.
What number did Hans start counting from?


He read the problem several times. He said, “This is impossible. You can’t count backwards by hundreds and land on 360.” He was thinking that Hans had to start counting from a multiple of 100. His first guess was 900. He then made a chart. He first showed the six numbers Sally counted (310, 320, 330, 340, 350, 360) in a column beginning with 310 at the top. Directly across from these numbers, he made a second column. This time, he began recording numbers from the bottom of the column because, “Hans was counting backwards.” So he put 360 in the bottom of the column next to the 360 in Sally’s column. Once he saw both 360s next to each other he shouted, “Of course! You can count by 100s from any number.” He then counted on from 360, 5 more times (460, 560, 660, 760, 860). He had found Hans starting number and celebrated with a, “YES!” These are all problem-solving skills he learned along with his classmate from Ms. Powers. She’s teaching them to try and try again, to look for patterns, and to organize their work with charts so that their effort pays off. This is teaching math as a learning endeavor and not an exercise in being right or wrong.
If you want to promote a greater appreciation for math as a creative and rigorous learning endeavor, try playing math games (I can give you some suggestions), and use the puzzles, problems and activities from these two websites, www.youcubed.org and http://nrich.maths.org.

Read Professor Boaler's article >>