George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Non-Math Essentials for Learning Math

Focusing on these five qualities of thriving classrooms can help foster confident young mathematicians.

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    As a math consultant, I’m in many classrooms, and I get to witness lots of math instruction. I find that there are similar qualities among the classrooms that are really thriving—and those qualities quite often don’t really have much to do with math. There are five non-math qualities I see in the best-run classrooms.

    1. The Power of Belongingness

    Ilana Seidel Horn, a professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt, says that belongingness is “when students experience frequent pleasant interactions with the sense that others are concerned about who they are and for their well-being.”

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    Learning math can be tough. Belongingness provides a basis for persevering through the difficulties associated with solving problems. When students feel connected in the classroom, the difficulty that is a necessary component to understanding math will feel less like a personal threat and more like a natural part of learning.

    Horn says that belongingness is “fostered through authentic connections.” Taking time to build a sense of friendship and family grounded in plenty of shared experiences will help students develop the confidence and motivation they need to do the hard work that comes in learning math.

    2. The Power of Well-being

    Mathematicians, Tracy Zager says, “push boundaries, ask questions, take risks, test conjectures, try new things, and are relentlessly passionate about pursuing meaning.”
    In order for students to identify themselves as capable mathematicians, they need to feel safe enough in our classrooms to begin that pursuit of meaning.

    Learning math is risky business. Mistakes, uncertainty, and struggle are all important to building confidence and competence in math. Creating an environment where students are comfortable and secure enough to push boundaries, make mistakes, and take risks is critical to learning math with success.

    3. The Power of Playfulness

    Fun has gotten a bad rap lately, and playfulness is sometimes considered a distraction to learning. In truth, when students are enjoying themselves, math anxiety is lowered—which leaves room for deeper mathematical thinking to happen.

    Teachers can use playfulness both during and outside of their math lessons. 

    Playfulness during a math lesson can mean many things. It can include playing with manipulatives, leaving space for student discovery, tinkering with numbers and shapes, questioning that stimulates curiosity, using a makerspace during math centers, acting out story problems, investigating an engaging task, using movement, and playing math games.
    Students who experience playfulness during math lessons get to see math as it’s meant to be: exciting, enticing, and energizing.

    Playfulness outside of math lessons really means whatever you want. What matters most is that it is stress-free, content-free, and fun-filled. It can mean joining your students at recess in a game of Banana Tag, participating in a basketball game during gym, or including team builders like “This or That” and “Never Ever Have I” throughout the year. It can mean simply sharing a personal interest with the class. For example, Megan Schmidt has a dog wall in her classroom where students can post pictures of their favorite dogs.

    The spontaneity of playfulness, the shared memories it provides, and the sheer fun of it will ease anxiety in students and create a sense of both belongingness and well-being.

    4. The Power of Passion

    Passionate teachers are hard to resist. Excitement and positivity bubble over in them. Some may believe passion cannot be taught, but the truth is, it spreads like wildfire. Passion is contagious.

    A teacher who loves teaching math will get students excited to learn math. Step into a classroom led by a passionate math teacher and you’ll notice students at the edge of their seats anticipating his or her next move, ready to take on any math challenge, and willing to take risks. When math is taught with enthusiasm, students begin to see learning in a different light, approaching each problem with interest. Passion sets the stage for engagement to happen in math. Brains are awakened by emotion, offering students a way to make stronger mathematical connections.

    Here are few ways to cultivate more passion in math:

    • Bring your own math passions to class.
    • Make time for your passions outside of school—this will find its way into your teaching.
    • Help students recognize their strengths—this can lead them to discover a new passion.
    • Make time for students to share their interests.
    • Tweak math problems to include students’ interests.
    • Keep math relevant by connecting interests with real-world situations.
    • Allow students to get carried away by their passions at times.

    5. The Power of Self-efficacy

    A strong sense of self-efficacy provides the self-assurance it takes to strive for more, because success is believed to be within reach.

    Teachers are more motivated to teach when they believe they’re making an impact. Self-efficacy and expectations go hand-in-hand. Teachers who hold students to a higher standard in math usually have confidence in themselves to help all students meet that standard.

    Students are more motivated to learn when they believe they can be successful. Students with high self-efficacy can sustain their effort in the face of failure. They quickly recover after setbacks and often attribute failure to insufficient effort or an incomplete skill set, and approach uncertainty with assurance that they can exercise control over it.