Raising Math Explorers

By: Kerri Firth

Math.  It’s a word that causes many people to jump into two different camps – the “Math People” and the “Not Math People.”  Here at Cat & Owl Co, we are taking a long look at this phenomenon.  Ultimately, our question is: How do we encourage children to become confident learners of math concepts?  

Math in School

I’ve been an elementary school classroom teacher for nearly eight years. When students reach my third grade classroom, most students have already decided if they are Math People, or Not.  In some cases, there are already students who balk at the thought of even having a time slot on the daily schedule that suggests the topic, and they groan at the thought of taking out their notebooks.

Many of the Not Math People students hesitate because of this idea of “right” and “wrong” answers.  They have experience, up to this point, that leads them to think that in math, they should expect to be “wrong” often.  A feeling that is good for… well, no one.  This mindset does not do any favors for a child in the classroom.  Imagine being in a situation where you are forced to engage with content that you believe will ultimately lead to demonstrable proof that you are “wrong.”  Yikes!

But here's the other thing.  Actually, it can be just as challenging if a child believes that they are a Math Person and expects to get everything right.  These are children who rush, thinking that being finished first is best.  They exclaim, "I'm done!" as they slam down their pencils victoriously and look around the room at others with their heads still bent over their classwork.  This gets tricky right around third grade, because concepts become increasingly difficult.  Rushing to be finished first can lead to errors, and not finishing first can lead these students to believe that they are "wrong," leading to a new round of Not Math People.

Here’s the truth: Neither of these students is the ideal math student.  Ultimately, learning math is not about right or wrong answers.  The ideal student is someone who is willing to grapple, struggle, understand deeply and demonstrate completely that they understand the process.  We need a new classification.  Let's call them Math Explorers.

Math at Home

So, what does all of this mean for parents? It means that we need to reevaluate our own relationship with math, and become Math Explorers, too.  A recent study by Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, found that math-anxious parents can pass their math anxiety on to their children.  This is probably compounded by the fact that schools are changing math instruction, with some influence by Common Core.  Students are experiencing math, not just memorizing facts.  As children enter school, parents with math anxiety are hoping that their children will be Math People, and then those parents see that math instruction is different, and they feel additionally unequipped to get involved.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!  Encouraging children to use logic and reasoning from an early age will help them to associate positive feelings with learning math.  If parents engage with their young children in problem-solving experiences, it builds a common family language around logic and reasoning.  That is where confidence in math begins.

As parents, this means looking at math concepts with our children and being willing to engage in the process.  It means thinking deeply with them, discussing our reasoning, and providing opportunities where they feel safe to be “wrong,” knowing that “experiencing” is of paramount importance.  So, take some time today to play some games with your child.  Encourage your child to explore, and enjoy the process.