Making Math Matter in the Classroom

Oct 20, 2023
Math Matter Image

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not good at math” or “I am just not a numbers person”? It’s relatively common. But, have you heard someone tell you, “I’m not good at reading”? Probably not. For years, there has been a social norm that dismisses poor math achievement as acceptable. Yet it’s rare you will hear anyone announce they struggle with reading.

The fact is that everyone can (and should) experience success in math, as it is directly correlated to future success. Research shows that success in math provides students with college and career options, increases prospects for future income and improves social and economic outcomes later in life. It’s important that we build classroom cultures where math success is about effort to learn the subject, not an inherent talent.

How do we create an environment where all students succeed in math?

Finding out what already interests students is a good place to start. Looking for a mathematical component within those topics will capture their attention and enable a positive approach to the subject. Along the way, students can problem-solve, discuss their ideas with peers, and explain their reasoning—all skills that contribute to standards-aligned content knowledge and success.

Being successful in math equates to much more than metrics such as speed, accuracy, and test taking. The challenge is, how can math teachers help students who have already convinced themselves they simply aren’t good at the subject?

Reflect on current mathematical practices in the classroom

When you think back to your own classroom math experiences, do you have fond memories of the countless worksheets you completed on solving division problems? The same goes for students in the classroom today—making math applicable and relevant to students shouldn’t consist of a set of equations without context.

For years, researchers have highlighted an approach that encourages students to use numerical reasoning to solve real problems, mirroring the way they’ll encounter the use of math as adults. The strategy is largely about setting students up for success in the professional world, where educators can lay the groundwork.

The key is to diversify standard practices when it comes to teaching math. Present students with opportunities to practice rich problem-solving and open-ended tasks with resources such as Open Middle, a website full of math problems that generally require a higher depth of knowledge than most problems that assess procedural and conceptual understanding. Utilizing deeper topics within classroom math shows students there’s more to their equations than a final answer. In fact, sometimes there is more than one right answer and more than one acceptable method. Tackling these richer, real-world problems can be tougher than solving equations on a worksheet, but it will encourage your students to push themselves and view their mathematical skills in a new light.

Recognize and praise metrics other than recalling memorized facts

Often times, mathematical assessments encourage being fast at recalling memorized facts (think timed multiplication tests or rapid response problem solving challenges). For multiple-choice standardized tests, students who excel at test taking are those rewarded. Assessments with answers that are either right or wrong (allow for only one correct answer) only recognize accuracy.

As math educators, it’s important to incorporate assessment and recognition that promote opportunities to use different strategies for achieving the same answer. With this shift in thinking around math, wrong answers should be viewed as learning opportunities to encourage intellectual risk taking. Consider using “happy mistakes” to create a class discussion around how the error occurred, instead of labeling it as incorrect immediately.

Recognizing math success doesn’t need to be a passing grade on an exam or answering all the questions of a challenge correctly. Awarding students with small tokens such as “Skilled Problem Solver” or “Most Creative Math Solution” can be just as effective as traditional methods of recognition.

Flipping the narrative around math in the classroom may not always be the simplest task for teachers, but building a solid foundation of math skills is critical to success in the classroom. Remember there’s no such thing as a being born with a ‘”math brain," as brains are constantly shaping, changing, developing, and connecting. Everyone can succeed in math.

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