How every student can be “good at math”

Dr. Gina Cherkowski | Parents |

The launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite was an exciting time for innovation when it first took to orbit decades ago. It was the launch of the space race and a golden age of math and science learning. All around the world there was an increased focus on successfully preparing students in math and science to meet the demands of our ever-changing world.

Fast forward to 2017. We have an insatiable demand for Math and Technology skilled workers to help us drive forward in the digital age but unfortunately many students are being left behind. There is an alarming shortage of mathematically and scientifically literate citizens who are equipped with the skills, tools, and mindsets needed to meet the increasing demands of our highly technical world.

Why is this so? I think the current state is sadly reminiscent of poor old Charlie Brown—caught up in a sisyphusian desire to kick the football, all while that rascal Lucy predictably (and without fail) yanks it away just as Brown is about to strike. Charlie Brown represents many of our students who are continuously trying to kick a ball without success. Eventually, most of them give up. In this scenario, the moving football represents the back and forth pendulum swing of curriculum which has become known as the ‘Math Wars’. Lack of student success has made this an urgent and important societal issue.

One side of this war is arguing for a “back to the basics” approach—one that would best equip our students with the facts and procedures they need to be successful in traditional mathematics. The other side calls for conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge to provide students with a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, to become capable problem solvers, and to be able to engage in higher order thinking skills. This is in addition to having the ability to be efficient with the signs, symbols, and procedures of math.
This back-and-forth debate is also reminiscent of Lucy’s characteristically elusive football, as the math that students “need to know” (and how they should learn it) continues to be a moving target, making it difficult for sustained success. It is time to transcend the math wars, and launch our beliefs about math into the 21st Century.

Teaching and learning Mathematics must draw on the evolving research in neuroscience to better understand how we learn and what needs to be done in order to help all students become successful in the math classroom. I believe that one of the main reasons previous approaches (and the models they endorse) have been unsuccessful at engaging students in math, is that they have been too heavily laden with the verbal linguistic signs and symbols that have served as barriers to the majority of students.

By understanding how our brains work, and what humans need in order to learn and make sense of new information and ideas, we realize that personally connecting knowledge in meaningful ways is critical. What we do know from the research is that because humans are analogic beings we learn best through stories, metaphors, and visual models – precisely what our math classes often neglect.

By using stories, metaphors, and visual models to teach math we are adding context to what students are learning and to how they see, understand, and interpret their world. When students learn math merely through signs and symbols, many of them are not able to connect the meaning of the symbols to an action or to what the “mathematical story” is.
Being able to use the signs and symbols of math is an efficient way to show what we have learned, but I argue that for the vast majority of students, it is not the best way to learn math. Like Einstein, many brilliant spatial thinkers have been unsuccessful at school math merely because it is taught with a heavy focus on signs and symbols. Teaching math visually, by using spatial temporal reasoning helps students make sense of math as it connects math to metaphoric meanings and to visual representations. Thus, this method opens the doors of mathematics for many of our students who have traditionally not seen themselves as “good at math.”

Our world is currently changing at an exponential pace due to the explosive growth of technology and innovation in our digital ecosystem. Consequently, the way we understand and use mathematics is also changing. Today, math is seen as an increasingly important tool that enables us to analyze, interpret, and make sense of the plethora of information and data that is bombarding us in fields such as health care, finance and even sports. In addition, skills such as computational thinking, non-routine problem solving, looping (multiplicative thinking), logic and reasoning are becoming increasingly important skills that as they equip our youth with the skills, tools and mindsets they need to understand and manipulate code thus becoming creators of technology rather than being mere consumers of it.

If we keep moving the football, so to speak, and do not stop to look at the big picture, we are at risk of continually perpetuating the dizzying debate as opposed to getting closer to a viable, sustainable solution to create a more mathematically literate citizenry.

Again, if we look to neuroscience (and to the skills, tools and mindsets students will need in their future), we open our minds to a new way of thinking—that mathematical learning is a tool that all students must access and use. Furthermore, equipping only some of our students with mathematical tools is a social justice issue. In a world that requires a citizenry who is able to solve complex, wicked problems using math, science, and technology (in addition to 21st Century Skills like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity), we cannot afford to leave students behind.

STEM education is a powerful tool that forces us to teach math in a way that is integrated, connected, and highly visual/spatial—it immerses students in real-world, complex, non-routine problems where they need to use a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving in a hands-on, tangible way.

By this train of thought, using a STEM pedagogy in which students design, create, build, model, test, fail and re-test as they think about—and use—mathematics to solve problems is a way forward. Inquiry-based, hands-on applied ways of learning mathematics leverages spatial skills, reinforces procedural knowledge, and deepens conceptual understanding while creating opportunities for students to use the signs and symbols of mathematics as they learn to model, represent and make visible what there are learning. Furthermore, it invites all students into the beautiful world of mathematics as they make meaningful connections to math in their world.

In sum, by teaching math using rich, authentic problem-based STEM activities designed to engage students’ spatial temporal reasoning (and encourage them to connect their learning to real-world visual models, stories, and metaphors), will no doubt help many students who are currently being filtered out of math to become mathematical thinkers that are equipped with the skills, tools, and mindsets they need to be the creative innovators and complex problem-solvers of tomorrow.

If math truly has become Lucy’s infamously hard-to-kick football, let’s stay her troublesome hands and help ensure that all students have an opportunity to hit their target, once and for all.