News from School

Mathematics Mission: Dispelling the Myth of the Math Mind
Posted 02/03/2017 01:03PM

Upper school math teacher Libby Miles is on a mission: to dispel the myth of the “Math Mind.”

“There’s a misconception that you have to have a certain kind of brain to be good at math, and that can directly impede students’ success,” Miles said. She speaks from experience.

“I started to dislike math when I was struggling to learn my multiplication tables,” Miles said. “I decided in third grade that since math didn’t come easily to me, I must not be good at it.”

Throughout middle school and high school, Miles didn’t think of herself as a mathematician, even though she earned good grades and completed AP Calculus. She deliberately chose a college that did not have a math requirement so she could avoid the subject.

After graduating college, Miles joined the Americorps National Service Program, and her Seattle assignment included tutoring in an inner city middle school. “I was looking for ways to connect with my students, and when I saw that many were struggling in math, that was my hook.”

As Miles and her students worked together to figure out the math that eluded them, she realized how much she was enjoying it. “I began to see math as beautiful, as an art form—figuring out patterns and applying logic and formulas to solve problems.” She knew she wanted to pursue a career in teaching, but her old fears about math impeded her.

Miles persevered, and after taking the math courses she had avoided in college, she applied and was accepted to the Stanford Teacher Education Program. There, she and her cohort dove into research about neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections through hard work. “The most important thing I learned at Stanford was that every student can learn and appreciate mathematics. Math isn’t just reserved for a select few who are the first to ‘get it,’ and the idea that some people just can’t do math is incredibly destructive.”

Now Miles is determined that her students see themselves as mathematicians. She and co-teacher Bill Fallon approach the curriculum creatively, using a variety of instructional methods, and they teach students that there are many ways to solve problems. They have high expectations for all of their students.

“Making sense of patterns and procedures must come before math facts. Memorization is a tool that can help mathematicians to work more efficiently, but if children equate memorization with mathematical skill, they lose belief in their potential the minute they can’t remember 'seven times eight.'”

How Can Parents Help?

  • Praise children for hard work. Math doesn’t always come easily, even to professional mathematicians. Miles and Fallon begin the year by showing their sixth graders a video about Andrew Wiles, the Fields Medal winner who took seven years to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Wiles says of mathematics: “It's like training in sport. If you want to run fast, you have to train.”
  • Be "Math-Positive!" “Your mindset determines your future success,” Miles says. If you’re not excited about math, fake it! If parents dread it, their children often will too. “When I was struggling with math as a kid, my mother told me, ‘I’m not good at math either.’ She was trying to be supportive, but we know now from research that when moms send that message, it negatively affects their children’s success,” Miles said.
  • Name the math that children are doing naturally. Little children love to count, they naturally look for patterns, and puzzles are a favorite activity. Point out the ways that children are being mathematicians without even realizing it, and that way you’ll capture their natural enthusiasm for these activities and the subject.
  • You don’t have to have strong math skills to help your child develop them. Many parents are not so sure about their own mathematical skills, but they can still help their children by modeling important behaviors like persevering through a difficult problem, referencing notes or a textbook, and asking for help. If you would like additional ideas, Miles recommends two books by Stanford professor Jo Boaler: Mathematical Mindsets and What's Math Got to Do with It?
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