Student Engagement

Creating an Environment Where All Students See That They Can Be Good at Math

When teachers guide students to look beyond narrow metrics of success in math, more students will see their potential for learning.

January 27, 2023
RichLegg / iStock

If you’re a math educator, have you ever heard a friend, student, or parent say, “I’m not good at math”? Alternatively, have you heard someone tell you, “I’m not good at reading”? Probably not. Few people announce that they struggle with reading, but many are quick to say that they struggle with math.

Perhaps this perception exists because being “good at math” is defined by narrow and antiquated criteria. This definition might include traits such as speed, accuracy, and test performance. Can a person not necessarily have these traits and still be considered good at math?

When I posed this question on Twitter, the most common replies from math educators included traits such as willingness, problem-solving, recognizing patterns, thinking, ideas, curiosity, questioning, and critical thinking. Math educator and consultant Nick Corley replied, “Why ask the question? The implication of the question implies there are those that are not good at math. We all need to be math people, like we all need to be readers.”

When I posed the question to my former colleague K–8 math coordinator Michelle Chan, she said, “What makes someone ‘good’ at math? They have to be a collaborative problem solver. They need to understand different perspectives, share ideas, and learn how to solve challenging questions with others. In my many years of math teaching experience, the students who did the best were those who were persistent in problem-solving, especially when the question was not easily answered. They wanted to figure out the answer rather than have it given to them. They took their time to fully understand a concept and could also share their knowledge with a group.”

If being good at math means so much more than metrics like speed, accuracy, and test taking, how can math teachers help students see themselves this way?

What is practiced? 

Reflect on the type of practice that’s regularly assigned in your math class. Are the examples typically procedural or truly problem-solving? Are most problems short and quick or elaborate and thought-provoking? Are the answers usually a single number without context or open-ended solutions?

To diversify the types of practice to include increased persistence and curiosity, check out resources such as Open Middle and Slow Reveal Graphs. As students experience practice with rich problem-solving and open-ended tasks, they will discover there is so much more to math than getting a final answer.

There is a popular description of traditional math curriculum: “a mile long and an inch deep.” If there is a way to deepen the topics, the students who have the aptitude to explore and discuss mathematics will have a chance to shine. As an example, the following prompt provides deep practice for multiple standards, including geometry, computation, rounding, estimating, and reasoning. Such a prompt can be easily modified and extended to meet the needs of the learner.

An 8-ounce can of paint can cover about 16 square feet. You are painting a wall with dimensions of 8 feet by 15 feet. Your friend says you will only need about seven cans. How would you respond to your friend?

What is assessed?

I teach a small group of middle school students who have earned low test scores in their previous math courses and on standardized tests. Because of their experience of being compared with classmates who are fast and accurate test takers, they have labeled themselves as not good at math. However, if you look closer, you will see that these students excel at risk-taking, storytelling, and finding patterns. 

Recently, as a bonus item on a test, they were asked to tell a story that described a continuous piecewise function. Within their story, they were assessed on their understanding of slope, intercepts, domain/range, and horizontal lines. After reading these stories, you might determine that these students were, in fact, good at math. The stories told me so much about their deep understanding of the concept as well as their creativity.

Mathematical assessments can expand to include art projects, verbal presentations, research assignments, and even performative skits. (My summer students act out “The Tortoise and the Hare” with given speeds (slope) and starting lines (y-intercepts). You might be amazed at the talents revealed. 

Sometimes it’s not the student who is failing the assessment—it might be that the assessment is failing to fully assess the abilities of the student.

What is recognized and praised?

Timed multiplication tests and rapid-response math contests all encourage being fast at recalling memorized facts. Multiple-choice standardized tests reward students who know how to play the game of test taking. Assessments that mark answers as a strict binary of right or wrong only recognize accuracy. Math educators can incorporate games and contests that recognize deeper math skills such as risk-taking, creativity, and perseverance.

Consider Desmos’s Annual Global Math Art Contest, which judges design and the simplicity and variety of mathematics used, and the Museum of Mathematics’ Con Edison annual MoMathlon, where middle school students will be led in “[discussing] solutions, exploring new ways of reaching the answers, and inviting students to share their problem-solving strategies with their fellow budding mathematicians.”

Recognitions do not have to be as grandiose as a national competition. At your school’s next awards ceremony, extend recognitions beyond honor roll students and add awards such as “Innovative Problem Solver” or “Best-Researched Math Project.”

Retired educator and consultant Skip Tyler is spreading the word that everyone is a math person. Skip sends “Everyone Is A MATH Person #ChangeTheStory” stickers to educators who request them to encourage them to change the story in their classrooms by asking, “Are you increasing student discourse? Implementing number sense routines? Using open-ended rich tasks? Using more small group instruction? Giving students choice in their learning?”

As math educators, we can implement shifts in our students’ practices, assessments, and recognitions to change the story. By expanding the definition of what it means to be good at math, we are all math people.

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  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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