Shifting Our Mathematical Mindsets

Earlier this week, I spent some time with other third, fourth, and fifth grade math leadership teachers from my school district for an all-day professional development. Usually, I join in the collective sighs and bemoaning related to an all-day PD, because we teachers find that it’s either boring, not related to our experience, or we’d rather just do what we love doing, which is to be in the classroom and teach. This PD was different, though. I felt like I got something out of it, and I believe it will bring about change in my classroom, as it confirmed and solidified many of the thoughts and questions I’ve had about teaching math for the past few years, along with current best practices and research I’ve been reading about. This PD was all about shifting the way we teach math, and the mindset we (teachers) and students have regarding math.

As the PD started, we were asked to write down three words to represent thoughts or emotions we had about our own math experiences when we were young students. My words? Confused, frustrated, and bored. I found I wasn’t alone, as the results came in when we shared and discussed our experiences. In reading the first chapter from Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, it was brought to my attention that a study recently showed “just 7 percent of preservice teachers used positive language to describe their experiences as math students” (Zager, p. 3). Also, “33 percent of elementary school teachers have math anxiety” (Zager, p. 3). Clearly, there is a need to shift the prevailing mindset teachers and students have about math.

After much discussion throughout the day, we were given some strategies for how to get our students (and ourselves) to think more flexibly about numbers, while intentionally using the Eight Mathematical Practices, which are part of the Common Core State Standards. We participated in number/math talks, which I plan to incorporate into my teaching routine immediately. The exercises were fun, and showed that there is more than one way to arrive at a correct answer. Here’s the “Number Talks Recipe” that was shared with us:

1. Teacher writes problem on board horizontally.

2. Students solve problem mentally & thumbs up when done.

3. Students share their answers only & teacher records all answers given.

4. Teacher asks volunteers to share their strategies for solving. Teacher records thinking on board.

5. Teacher uses questioning strategies to elicit math talk among students. Justify and critique.

One of the problems we practiced with was 16 * 45. Go ahead and try it yourself, mentally. No pencil, paper, or calculator. We quickly found out that there were multiple strategies to solve this. If we had an answer and were waiting for everyone else to solve it, we were encouraged to try and think of another way to solve the problem. This process allowed us to think of different ways to break apart numbers, using rounding, the distributive method, and other strategies, such as knowing that if you double one factor and divide the other factor by two, you’ll end up with the same answer.

The focus of the entire PD was to think flexibly with numbers, and I believe we did just that over the course of our day together. We talked about the need for students to use the Eight Mathematical Practices (and for us to model them). In addition, we discussed shifting our instruction away from teaching rules, procedures, and algorithms right away, and instead, to spend more time up front exploring the why of mathematical concepts with students. When students have a deeper understanding of what numbers actually represent, can make sense of word problems, and understand how and why to use each operator in order to solve the problem, anxiety will lessen, and students will begin to develop a more positive emotional response to mathematics.

I just (like 15 minutes ago) purchased my own copy of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, and plan to see what else is hidden in this highly-reviewed book. I’m looking forward to seeing my students make sense of numbers in a meaningful way, and doing what I can to create a positive experience with mathematics.

What about you? Have you had similar experiences to me when you were a math student? Did you find yourself in the 7% of preservice teachers, or the 33% of elementary teachers who have negative experiences or anxiety related to mathematics?

We tend to teach how we were taught, or in response to it. Sometimes, our own negative experiences unknowingly present themselves when we teach with a lack of enthusiasm or passion for a subject. I encourage you to shift your mindset regarding math to a positive one. Let’s make learning happen, both for our students, and ourselves.

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About the Author: Shawn Seeley

Father, husband, teacher, retired Marine.

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