George Lucas Educational Foundation

Helping Students to Develop an Appreciation for Math

Helping Students to Develop an Appreciation for Math

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“I hate Math. I have never been good at it. And tell me, when am I honestly ever going to use this again?”

I am having the same conversation in my office with yet another student failing out of math class. I am not a math teacher. I am an advisor, but I know this conversation all too well. The math teachers and I work closely to intervene when students drop below passing and this is how the conversation always starts with my students.

The truth is they don’t hate math, they hate struggling and not succeeding in math. From all outward appearances they like all of the functions of math. My students love the technology that math has afforded them. They have plans to go off into the world and do great things. Many of them are already applying math to their real world problems. Most of my students are working, driving to school, and calculating the cost of college. My brain has struggled to understand how students could be so steadfast in their hatred for a tool that could help them navigate the chaos of life.

Math always came easily to me, not just the numbers, but understanding the value of being able to use a formula. I used the formulas and sequencing theories I learned in algebra and applied the same concepts to my foreign language classes. I could also see the relationship between English class and Math class. Essay writing was as easy as a plug and chug equation: Introduction + Body + Conclusion = Assignment Completed; increase the values for the first three variables and the grade value increased, as well.

I felt and still feel a bit of comfort by rules that produce the same outcomes every time I apply them. However, the conversation I am having with my student today brings to mind the quote attributed to physicist Albert Einstein, “Insanity: is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If I find the results disappointing it is time to change my influencing variables.

It is time. We have to change the way students think about math, and not only math we have to change the way they think about their relationship with math. Most importantly we have to change the way our students think about themselves. The problems are not small, but the solutions may be.

Students think of math as obtuse, living only in the cerebellums of an elite class of nerds and inaccessible or inapplicable to the real world. The reality is that math is more accessible and tactile than ever. Today more than ever students have access to tools their grandparents could only dream about. Complex math functions quickly being redacted by calculating machines and instant access to know all known equations via the internet. As a result complex algorithms are predicting search results for them and they are being guided from destination to destination by math codes triangulating their location and feeding back directions to them in real time through the GPS units in cars and cellphones. Many students literally already have math in their “pocket”.

The relationship that students have with math matters. To the student the relationship has been harsh and abusive. The high stakes testing era of education has beaten the opportunity for divergent thinking out of all of the disciplines, but the effects on math have been some of the worst. Forcing students into a “there is one way to arrive at the right answer” model has alienated many students. Even the previously quoted Albert Einstein struggled under this push for conformity, writing: “…that modern education hasn't yet completely smothered the curiosity necessary for scientific study,” but implying that it was making a bold attempt at it.

The lessons that our students have learned from poor educational policies is that even if math is something they could master, why should they want to, it is difficult and loathsome. In reality a healthy relationship with math improves students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills making the academic and “real” world much easier to navigate.

Self-doubt is a powerful suppressant. Years of feeling unsuccessful in math has told our students they are not good at it. They now believe they never can be. We all know this not to be the case, if past performance were an indicator of ability there would be no need for schools. We could all concede there was no such thing as learning, close the books and go home. Students don’t truly believe this and we as teachers surely don’t, so we have to help create a vision for our students of who they would like to be. We also have to help to give them a more honest view of who they are now.

A recent student told me that because one small mistake in a math problem would throw off her whole answer, she had decided she was not detail-orientated enough to be good at math. I reminded her how she had done so well in her first responder class and those details were literally life or death. We then talked about the Airway, Breathing, Circulation (A,B,C’s) of first aid being similar to the sequencing of which math functions to do first when solving a problem.

This year I have a mission. I am going to be bringing math out of the classroom and into the campus. We are going to celebrate palindromes and squares. On 10/01, 11/11, 2/4, and 3/9 we are going to give students safe places to enjoy the fun of math again. There will be Lego stations throughout the school. Students can get their faces painted at the “What’s your sine?” face painting station. There will be timelines of math through history guiding them down hallways. The roulette wheel will welcome them to learn about probability. Music carried through measureable sound waves will be filling the cubed spaces of our classrooms. Science teachers will teach radioactive decay curves, English teachers will be teaching that not all statistics are equal in building an argument and Math teachers will be teaching students how to fall in love again.

I don’t know if these co-curricular activities will balance the equation entirely, but math has taught me that I have to change for x if I don’t want my students’ current trajectory to remain constant.

More information on Albert Einstein can be found by following the link below:

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I love your ideas for bringing math out onto the campus and showing students a variety of ways that math can be fun and necessary in their lives. But I think the most important change needs to happen in every math classroom nearly every day: math teachers need to change the way they teach and they need math curriculum to help them do that. I love what Dan Meyer says about math -- if students are first perplexed about a problem, they become curious about how to solve it. If the math can be made more "real-world," then students will see the connections and understand the value. Check out his work here:

AnnPatrick's picture
5th grade math and science

This is a great article. I've struggled against a "failure mindset" in children for years. Much of it comes from home, too - parents believe you're either born with a propensity for math or you're not. I cringe when I hear parents excuse their child's low math grades with, "I was never good at math, either." We all have enough curriculum - whether Common Core or some other list of standards. What teachers need is support to teach the curriculum - content materials, ideas for projects and craftivities (math activities with a crafty final product), the dollars to make them happen, and let's face it, practice and assessment materials; testing isn't going anywhere and students need opportunities to practice that, also. The lack of materials in the past 5+ years caused me to spend most evenings, weekends, and summers creating my own materials for math and science - a burden that led to my early retirement.

ThinkingOutLoud's picture

Thank you Laura Bradley for the suggested website. And thank you Ann Patrick for the kind words. I appreciate this community so much. The shared ideas here are inspiring and practical.

MikalaStreeter's picture

This is great. There are so many students (and adults alike) who have come to hate math because of bad experiences in the classroom. At my previous school, we had a huge celebration one year for Pi Day and the students had so much fun doing fun/nerdy activities like the ones you mentioned. It's unclear how much that enthusiasm made it back into their day to day math classes though. What I'd really love to see, like Laura Bradley posted here, is students engaging daily in more compelling math problems, so that they can dive into the math needed (for example) to figure out their college finances, the math used in their GPS, or the math used by government leaders to make major decisions using statistics and other data. Seeing how math really connects with the world as they know it outside of the classroom, how math connects to bigger ideas about the world and relates to other subjects/content they're learning, is where students will really get excited. Those problems are messy and they require more than just detailed following of steps. They require understanding the human element of the problem and bringing in their natural intuition about a situation. No longer is there a single right answer. Instead, there's an answer you could sensibly justify, but there are also other answers that others could justify. I wrote more about this on Medium and included an example math problem about Syrian refugees - Would love your thoughts!

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