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As a subject, math is still the academic bully that many kids face everyday.  It corners them, pressures them, intimidates them, and leaves their confidence shattered.  Math still takes some kids’ lunch money and I am struggling with how we can put an end to it.

It seems as though you either get math or you don’t.  It also seems to be the only subject where it’s permitted for adults to admit they’re not very good at it either. As Kyle asked/commented on my blog about confidence (Jan. 27), do you ever hear a parent or student proudly announce that they can’t read? But with Math it’s OK? Why?

Maybe it’s the nature of the subject itself. Maybe we’re asking students to be far more abstract that their stage of development allows.  When my daughter was in the third grade, she had a homework question that asked her to “Draw as many shapes as she could with 2 parallel lines.” She did that. “Now write about them.”  That was the question…what kind of question is that to ask of a third grade student? Now write about them?  Then again, we talked it through, I helped her understand the intent of the question and she got it, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe it’s the way we teach it. Maybe we just quite haven’t figured out the best way to organize our instruction. We have the manipulative toolkits, but have we figured out how to use them as both lead and remedial instructional tools? Or maybe our youngest students do need more drill-and-kill to master the essential skills necessary to be successful.  But then again, I’ve given enough blackline masters to enough struggling students to know it did nothing to improve their skills, so maybe it’s not that.

Maybe Math teachers were too successful when they were in school. Since most Math teachers have loved Math since they themselves entered Kindergarten, maybe they just don’t have the empathy for kids who don’t get, or even like, Math.  Maybe the idea of not getting it just doesn’t compute?  Then again, I taught Math, I loved Math, yet I had empathy for those who struggled.  I’ve since Lisa West, Dave Killick, and countless other Math teachers spend hours with struggling students to help them get over the hump, so maybe it’s probably not that.

Maybe it’s the language of Math. Why do we say ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ when we know those aren’t proper math terms?  Maybe we need to teach the proper language of math earlier on and use it consistently throughout the grades. Product, quotient, difference, area, diameter, quadratic formulas, it’s all very confusing.  Irrational numbers, really? Maybe the words get in the way. ∏?  What in the world is ∏? In Math there is only one correct answer yet we have a number that goes on forever? If we going to ask our students to speak this foreign language then we better explicitly teach it to them. Some kids do make it through, but maybe it is a little of this.

Maybe Alan Schoenfeld is right?  In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Schoenfeld said that you master mathematics if you are willing to try. That success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. Maybe he’s on to something.  Maybe our students give up too quickly?  Maybe we do too? Maybe we begin to compartmentalize math students too early as haves and have-nots. It could be some of this.

Maybe it’s all of the above; maybe it’s none of it.  All I know is that I am going to maximize my twenty-two minutes trying to figure it out.


(Originally posted on 02/05/11 at

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Comment by Erika Podlovics on April 19, 2011 at 3:53pm

Tom, you make some really great points about excuses people use, saying that they just "don't get it".


Although math is considered an academic subject, it really doesn't need to be because basic math is at the core of our intuition. Every student can guess how long it will take to drive from Toronto to New York, or guess how many jelly beans are in a jar. It's developing the skills to systematically break a question down that student really need to develop. It's getting them to explain their intuition to someone else using logical and repeatable steps.


I think this is a really cool Ted Talk by Dan Meyer called "Math class needs a makeover" . It's inspired me to think this way about teaching language (my job), and also about how I generally explain things to other people. I think you might enjoy it too. 


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