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Our students deserve better math instruction than we had

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In 1979, my mother passed away from breast cancer. Had she been diagnosed today, in 2021, her chances of survival would have been much greater. That is because we have learned so much about how to treat cancer in the last 40 years. We have better technology as well as significantly increased understanding about how cancer cells work. This is why when people develop cancer today, they seek treatment from a doctor who is current in the most recent scientific research and treatments, not the one treating cancer the same way they did in 1979.

Now, think about your child’s math classroom. How much has it changed since the time you were in school? However, in the last 40 years we have learned so much more about how the brain works. We have learned that there is no such thing as a math person or a non-math person, yet we often still hear people say “I’m not a math person.” One famous brain researcher, Carol Dwick wrote, “...when we begin to see evidence that most students (and maybe all students) are capable of excelling in and enjoying math….it is no longer acceptable that so many students fail and hate math.”

Researchers such as Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford University, have written numerous books and done years of research around growth mindset and math. Boaler’s research concluded that students enjoy math more, and learn faster, when given challenging problems with more than one way to solve them. That when students make mistakes they learn more than when just coming up with the correct answer. That when you understand why something works and don’t just memorize procedures, you are more likely to remember and excel. And when you approach teaching and learning mathematics with a focus on understanding students develop flexibility and perseverance and an increased belief that they are capable and successful in math, not just surviving it.

I often have the opportunity to observe math classes where the teacher is trying to emphasize growth mindset in his or her students. In these classrooms, you often see students working together to solve a complex problem and trying multiple solutions before finding the correct answer. This is very different from the math classroom I experienced where I was given 20 problems and I had to get the correct answer using the method my teacher already showed me. Multiple methods and problem-solving were not valued like they are today.

In today’s world, we need creative thinkers who are able to come up with solutions to problems not yet solved, not people who can simply replicate a problem we have already solved. We have computers to do that for us, we all carry them in our back pocket. They are called cell phones.

How would you solve the problem 100-97? Would you simply understand that 97 is 3 away from 100 so the answer is 3? Or would you take out pen and paper and start borrowing from the 00’s and use the standard procedure you were taught in school? It is important that our students learn that there are multiple ways to solve a math problem. Sometimes the standard procedure is the best way, but sometimes we can use other methods. Understanding multiple methods to solve problems makes our students flexible thinkers and more efficient at solving problems. That is what many of today’s employers are looking for in this age of technology. Problem solvers who can think outside the box and come up with solutions.

These are researched-based methods that we are now using in our schools to help our students learn math in ways they will enjoy and be able to use later in life. We are consistently hearing the STEM fields are a growing career path we need to prepare our students for. If our students do not develop a love of math, they will not be drawn towards these career goals. We need them to have a growth mindset and believe they can all learn math and enjoy the subject.

We teach them we can learn from our mistakes in math and that we can work together to solve a problem. We help them to value other students’ answers and thinking. We want them to be creative thinkers and problem solvers. We teach them to use technology to help them be more efficient and to use multiple methods to be more accurate. This is the math class of today, which might look different than the math class of 40 years ago, but it’s what’s best for our students.

Rachel Smilowitz is a Middle School Math District Instructional Specialist for the Charleston County School District.

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