“Unboxing” Math Instruction

“I’m not a math person”. This is probably a statement you’ve heard from someone at some point, whether it be a friend, colleague, student or even yourself. It’s something that I grew up truly believing. I grew up believing that I did not have a “math brain” and that it just wasn’t “my thing”. Today, I know this is a myth.

I learned this to be a myth about one hour into my Primary/Junior Mathematics course in my B.Ed program at Brock, taught by one of the most inspiring educators I’ve ever met. It was here I learned that everyone can learn math, there is no such thing as a “math person”, and that this was an unfortunate myth that has stopped many students and adults from success in mathematics.

So, why do so many people believe they can’t do math?

Traditional math instruction has been black and white –  right or wrong. But isn’t the grey area where the real learning happens? When we box our students into answering questions that require only repetitive tasks, rote memory or simple procedures, we box them in to a world of right and wrong. We box them in by assigning them a grade “4/10” on a simple procedures task. We box them in by marking their work wrong if they haven’t solved the problem in the exact way we’ve taught them to. We box them in when we don’t give them the chance to show us what they are truly capable of. When we box them in, we send a message that they can’t do math.

We know that having a growth mindset is directly related to success, especially in mathematics. Right now in education we are moving away from straight forward, right and wrong math, and moving towards building an environment where problem solving, growth and exploration is more important. With instructional techniques like the three-part lesson plans and number talks, we’ve moved our instruction in the right direction. We also need to open up our math questions so that there is space within them for learning.

Last week I had my grade 2/3 students write a math assessment as a conclusion to our unit of learning. One of my students did quite poorly on the assessment and I was hardly able to understand what he was thinking when he wrote down one of his answers. When conferencing with him after, he explained his thought process to me. He misunderstood the question on the test so he answered it in his own way. After understanding his perspective on the question, it became obvious that he had solved the question in a much higher level way of thinking and clearly had a deep understanding of the concept. He told me, “I made my own math”. Well, how great is that? Had I just taken it for granted, marked it wrong and moved along to the next student, I would have missed this teachable moment. Instead, he left our conversation feeling proud of his abilities rather than feeling like he can’t do math. He left our conversation with a growth mindset.

What our students believe about their abilities in math directly affects their success. We need to set up our students with opportunities to challenge their thinking, try new things, explore and make mistakes. If our students believe they have unlimited potential in math, they will do great things.

Next time, I will replace that question with something process oriented and open ended. After all, I’m still learning too!





Updated: December 7, 2016 — 12:44 am

The Author

Laura Bottrell

Laura is a Grade 3/4 teacher with HWDSB. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Youth & Children's Studies and is a Registered Early Childhood Educator. She believes in the power of play and inquiry-based learning, no matter the grade. With a passion for the arts, Laura is an advocate for the arts in education and is currently the director of a theatre performance program for Kindergarten aged students!

1 Comment

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  1. Lori Mazereeuw says:

    In grade 3, my son was doing poorly on his Mad Minute multiplication tests and was very frustrated. His teacher was concerned. Flash card practise at home showed he knew the facts. He brought home some Mad Minute pages to practise at home, but could not finish within the time frame. I did an experiment. I created a Mad Minute with the same math question repeated over the entire page. He knew the answer, but couldn’t finish the page. My neighbour and friend is an OT. I had her over for a brief “visit” while he was writing a Mad Minute. She observed. Turns out he had a poor pencil grip and was physically incapable of writing faster. I notified the teacher. We put the thingy on his pencil to correct his grip and a lot of things improved very quickly. It was never about the math. Had to share.


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