Math: Unraveling Our Love-Hate Relationship

May 13, 2021 9:11:37 PM / by Kristi Hemingway

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We have a love-hate relationship with math.

When asked in the 2020 Gallup poll to say which school subject has been the most valuable to them in their lives, Americans named math as the clear winner. These results were an echo of the previous Gallup poll in 2002. And yet...

Math has also repeatedly topped Gallup student polls as the "most difficult" and "least favorite" school subject. In fact, 75% of Americans stop studying mathematics before they have completed the educational requirements for their career or job, thereby voluntarily limiting their career options just to avoid the pain and discomfort of one or two more math classes.

Why is math so specifically problematic for so many students? There's not a single straightforward answer. Obviously there are a certain percentage of students who struggle with math due to specific learning disabilities like dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, visual processing disorders or ADD/ADHD. But beyond any pre-existing obstacles, math presents its own inherent difficulties.

  • In the primary grades basic arithmetic is concrete, but as students progress concepts become increasingly abstract. Abstract thinking and concepts do require a higher level of concentration and the real life applications become less obvious.
  • Also, math is cumulative. Everything builds on what came before so a weak foundation or any learning gaps makes progression tricky or impossible.
  • There's one right answer. For a lot of math lovers, this rigidity is the very quality that appeals to them, but for others, this is the trigger for math anxiety.
  • Math anxiety is real. It goes beyond dislike to debilitating feelings of fear and failure that cause fight-or-flight responses in the body. At that point students not only lose the ability to take in new information, but they even have trouble recalling what they already know, further diminishing their math confidence.
  • Instructional approaches have traditionally focused on the how more than the why. Students can successfully memorize and produce facts and formulas with no true understanding of concepts. They move forward without a firm foundation, which feeds into learning gaps and the mounting sense that learning is irrelevant: thus the, "why do we have to learn this?" refrain.

Nicholas Keith, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for grades K-12 in Crowley ISD outside of Ft Worth Texas, saw this pedagogical flaw while serving as a mentor teacher through the TAP (teacher advancement program) from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

"One thing I came to realize was we can definitely do math better," said Keith. It became a "personal call" for him to improve math instruction in his district and change students' experience and achievement in math. " I worked with all grade levels as a math interventionist, so I really got to see the full spread of the vertical development of what math looks like. My passion now is figuring out how to help kids develop a strong math foundation that doesn't abandon them when they get to secondary."

Finding a solid, comprehensive curriculum is only the first step for Keith. "Any core curriculum will have strengths and it will have gaps," says Keith. He was determined to bridge the learning gaps, keep students engaged, create a positive and even fun culture around math, and also shift the instructional pedagogy district-wide--no small ambition. A resource that has been invaluable is TeachTransform. One of the many things that sets this program apart is its primary focus on giving students a deep understanding of the why of math, so that the how becomes almost a byproduct of that deep understanding.

"Our mission is to create instructional materials that help children learn and love to learn math," says TeachTransform co-founder Carol Gautier. "We love math and think that everyone should." Materials reflect a cross-content, integrated approach to instruction with story-based lessons, questioning, discussion and journaling.

Keith recalls a fourth-grade classroom with a very animated teacher acting out the characters and plot of the story in the lesson and the students were having so much fun that the math became somewhat invisible. "It's great to watch teachers, enjoy teaching," says Keith. "So I guess the success story is both about the students being engaged but it's also about giving teachers the resources they need to really love what they do."

Both Keith and Gautier agree that to unravel student's love-hate relationship with math requires

  • incremental learning along a continuum from concrete to pictorial to abstract and finally to a deep understanding of algorithms,
  • an engaging format with lots of opportunity for low-stakes practice in order to transcend anxiety,
  • flexible resources to individualize learning and address gaps,
  • a positive and fun math culture,
  • and an inquiry-based pedagogical shift from the how to the why.

"We've definitely seen growth in our math data at the Upper Elementary level," says Keith. "And even with the covid disruption we have seen growth in those students at the grade levels where we're using that resource." Being in Texas it's also important for his district that TeachTransform offers materials in both Spanish and English.

Interested in checking out TeachTransform to bring on the love? Find them here and get 10% off district-wide purchases with free virtual book walks.

Topics: Mathematics

Kristi Hemingway

Written by Kristi Hemingway

Kristi is a lifelong educator, having taught toddlers to adults in both public and private settings. After working overseas for ten years with international and European schools, in addition to the US, Canadian and British militaries, she managed programming for a large Arts and Humanities non-profit. Most recently Kristi worked for a curriculum company as a literacy consultant, instructional coach and professional developer prior to joining EdCuration in 2019.