“I’m just not a math person.” I was speaking with someone last week who uttered this [unfortunately] common statement. Many people, especially in the U.S., will say this as though it’s no big deal. Yet, rarely would someone say, “I’m just not a literate person.” Why is it that one of these statements is considered socially acceptable while the other is not? It’s widely accepted by experts that success in math is a strong predictor of college and career success, but top researchers have found that more kids have a fixed mindset about math than any other topic. As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to stop perpetuating this myth. Brain research is now telling us what a profound impact a parent’s relationship with math can have on their child’s learning and achievement. According to a recent University of Chicago and UCLA study, “[The] parents’ math anxiety stifled their child’s learning of math across grades 1 and 2, but only if parents helped their children on math homework. If they did not help them on homework, the parents’ math anxiety did not detract from their children’s learning.” The implication is not that parents shouldn’t help with math, but rather our approach and mindset needs to reflect patient problem solving and perseverance.
Enter Dan Meyer, perhaps the most famous contemporary math teacher. He emphasizes the importance of helping children become patient problem solvers who can think critically about complex problems. In a recent TED Talk, Meyer compares traditional teaching methods to watching Two and a Half Men. He discusses the kinds of problems we should be asking children to solve. You may have seen him on Good Morning America talking about the supermarket problem: You’re at the checkout and there is a lane with one cart with 19 items or a lane with 2 carts, each with 5 items. Which lane will be faster? Meyer’s activities, by definition, are not closed-ended problems with answers you can look up in the back of the book. This is not a Two and a Half Men problem. Meyer warns that we are inhibiting children’s initiative, perseverance, and retention of information when we simply provide a formula to practice. He says traditional teaching methods are making children “impatient with irresolution” and averse to word problems.
New neuroscience research is also telling us that the kind of struggling a child’s brain does when solving math problems causes synapses to fire and creates brain pathways, essentially growing their brain. Meyer’s former Stanford advisor, Dr. Jo Boaler, points out that before a series of recent experiments, “no one knew the brain could grow and shrink like that.” This is a fascinating field of research with constantly evolving findings and implications on how we can best reach all learners. For now, I encourage us all to think about how we can model patient problem-solving the next time one of our children brings home a complicated math task.
As Dan Meyer says, no problem worth solving comes with all the necessary information and can be solved in 22 minutes or less, the equivalent of Two and a Half Men. The textbooks our children deserve will present open-ended complex thinking activities. I have been excited to see this kind of complex thinking in our school this year. On a recent visit to 1st grade, I witnessed groups of students debating about bridge designs and building and testing bridges. And, of course, the 4th and 5th grade alternative energy project is wrapping up this month. Students have been engineering, prototyping and using CAD software to create blades for their wind turbine models. There is no correct answer in the teacher’s guide because there simply is no right or wrong answer. In a couple of weeks, when we 3D print and test the blades’ effectiveness at generating electricity, we are just taking one more step in the evolution of the design. This is the kind of work that teaches deliberate, patient problem solving. Dr. Boaler would remind us that these types of projects create brain pathways and help us grow our children’s brains.