Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Confidence in Math

On the first day at my new school this year, I met 90 awesome kids. I did my introductory thing – rapped the McKennalicious rap, proselytized about the amazingness of math and how much great stuff we’ll do all year, and got to know the kids a bit too.

I ended the day feeling great and really positive about the year. And then I found myself cornered by two, very, very anxious students.

“We just want to let you know that we really love you and you seem really awesome so we’re so sorry that we’re really awful at math.”

“Hold on,” I said. “I’m sure you’re not terrible at math and…”


And then they literally ran away.

It was really intense.

So, we’re two months in now, and those girls who cornered me? Not at all bad at math. In fact, they’re both pretty darn good.

So what is it about this super low confidence in math skills? Is confidence what separates successful students from lower performing students (in math specifically – but perhaps other subjects too?)

How much time do kids who think that they’re bad at math waste just freaking out
about how bad they are, instead of persevering with the confidence that even though they might not get a concept quite yet, they’ll get it in time?

I see this low confidence every day. When kids flat out tell me they’re bad, when I see full and CORRECT answers on assessments completely crossed out or erased because of some fear of being wrong. I have students who would rather leave a question completely blank than write down anything they’re not 100% sure of.

I have a few students who, when I ask why they aren’t taking notes or writing down the example problems we’re working out, answer “because I don’t get it.” Sometimes I think that’s just a cop out, but in the instances that’s true - students are completely putting a wall up to learning because they don’t immediately understand, which means that learning the topic must be completely impossible.

Am I a terrible teacher if students don’t immediately understand a somewhat complicated concept? Am I not breaking it down enough? Sometimes that is definitely the case. Sometimes though, I think my awesome days of instruction aren’t given a chance because of a wall that’s been built up over years. The foundation of that wall (uh oh, metaphor gone crazy alert) can often be found in students’ parents, who had terrible experiences with math. It’s so frustrating to hear parents say, often in front of their kids, that they “just aren’t good” at math, and neither is their kiddo.

I’m not at all blaming parents here – it’s just that there’s this messed up idea that seems to be so acceptable, that people are either good or bad at math and that that’s all there is to it.

I’m pretty sure I’m rambling here. I missed out on my coffee this morning, so I’ve been a bit off kilter all day. I almost didn’t do this first post of NaBloPoMo – but then I realized that giving up on day one was a bit pathetic. Get ready, Internet! You're in for a month of incoherence and exhaustion! (fact, it just took me 3 attempts to spell exhaustion correctly)

For something a little more coherent and worth while, please check out:


Maryland Math Madness

Epiphany in Baltimore

Surviving the System


Anonymous said...

Incoherence & exhaustion are definitely a part of NaBloPoMo! Also other parts of the year, like a time when I'm still at school at 7pm just trying to write a thank you letter and need to have another teacher read it over because I'm too tired to make sense or be sure that what I think makes sense actually does.

I definitely agree that student confidence (or lack thereof) plays a big role in their performance. In my math classes what you say is very much true of my students as well, and reinforced by a society that makes math-phobia acceptable in ways that fears and dislikes of other subjects are not.

In engineering classes, a similar discomfort plays out with some students who never want to try anything on their own that isn't spelled out for them step-by-step in the directions or done for them first. Or those who get so discouraged when a tower they built does not support a weight. But you're not going to be able to pick up a block with a robotic arm unless you experiment with how the arm moves for a while first! And that tower collapsing is a great chance to adapt and improve your design, and in doing so learn what makes structures strong! First ideas rarely work perfectly, so being comfortable with an idea's failure and being willing to modify your understanding and keep trying are essential skills in engineering and in life.

A BCPSS Parent said...

I hate that I'm no good at math thing. I hear it at scouts when we do STEM activities. These are little girls and they've already bought into failure. I think it comes from family and peers and TV and movies and it makes me crazy. I try to make it fun and encouraging, but even for 10yo kids it seems like they've got their mind made up. I can't imagine trying to change those ideas in high school.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and hooray for your persistence in posting even though you almost didn't! Good to have you with us in the Bmore NaBloPoMo crowd!

Anonymous said...

We have this problem in high school also. Have you ever talked to the kids/parents and found out where it comes from? It's important, since it seems to start so early.