How to Learn Math Part 1

Back in July I started a free online course offered by Jo Boaler at Stanford. The course is called “How to Learn Math”. It’s sort of a trial run with teachers and parents. The course is ultimately being designed for students to help them understand better how to learn math and how to overcome obstacles to their learning. I don’t mind being a guinea pig. Apparently, neither do 35,000 other people! I can’t believe so many people signed up for the course. It’s been a great experience, and it makes me happy so many others are taking part.

I have no idea if I’ll be able to access my work once the course ends at the end of September, so I’m going to capture some of my responses to the course here.

The first session of the course introduced some initial data and anecdotes to help us understand just how much fear and trauma math causes our students. We were asked to reflect on this information to say if it surprised us at all and how it connected with our experiences with our students. Here’s my response (with some edits now that I’m rereading this):

I wasn’t really surprised by the data. As a former classroom teacher, I’m all too aware of the troubles students have with math starting at an early age and the trauma it causes. I’m even aware of the trauma it’s caused some of the teachers I’ve worked with. One summer, I attended a math training whose focus was on helping teachers feel more confident about math, and it worked! They realized that they could make sense of math problems, and they didn’t have to hide their reasoning because they felt like they were “cheating” by not solving problems the “right” way. By the end of the training, several of the teachers cried and got extremely angry. They felt cheated. All these years they had thought of themselves as bad at math. But now that they realized that math is a subject they can make sense of, they questioned whether they could have taken a different path in their careers had they been taught math in a more nurturing way growing up.

As for myself, I was always “good” at math, but I never really understood what I was doing. I stayed “good” at math all the way through two semesters of college calculus, but it was way back in 8th grade algebra that I really stopped “understanding” what I was doing. I could follow the steps I was shown, but I never knew why I was doing them. I had a sense that there was something “behind the curtain”, but I never got a peek. It left me feeling like a fraud because I was an A student who could only solve procedural problems. I lacked the ability to reason, problem solve, and think creatively with math. It didn’t help that our curriculum materials obviously favored practicing procedural skills. I could get 22 basic skills problems correct with ease, flounder on the 2 word problems at the end of a worksheet, and still get an A.

Ever since I started teaching math, and more specifically, after I started attending quality professional development about teaching math, I learned that I could make sense of math. I had a capacity I never believed or knew I had. It was an empowering experience, but I know I have room to grow.

I was an elementary school teacher for 8 years, and I felt great about teaching math up to grade 5; however, I still got nervous anytime I had to approach anything remotely close to algebra. Currently I design digital math curriculum, and for the first time I’m having to develop lessons for grades 6 and 7 (I’m getting that much closer to algebra!). When I first started designing middle school math lessons, I was extremely nervous and self-conscious about it, and admittedly I still worry from time to time, but I’ve learned through designing lessons with my team that everything I learned about thinking mathematically when approaching elementary school math still applies to middle school math.

My team has said it’s been good working with me because I don’t just rely on the “tried and true” procedures and methods. I question why we are doing things a certain way, especially if it doesn’t make sense. Is it because of a lack of knowledge on my part? If so, they help me understand it. Or are we doing it out of habit and it’s not really best for the students? In which case I’ve opened their minds to thinking about it differently.

So, long story short, learning about math is important to me professionally because I design learning experiences for students to learn math, but it’s also important to me personally as I continue to develop as a math learner myself.

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