Promoting a mathematics-positive classroom

STUDENT achievement in mathematics has always been of concern. The general performance in mathematics is significantly less than is necessary for a numerate country. There is also a clear disparity in subject success among students from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Mathematics is a foundational subject and is one of the easiest subject matters for students to lose knowledge. I believe that the major issue with mathematics literacy in this country is related to attitudes and expectations of teachers, students, and parents.

Students give up on maths because they believe mastery of maths is innate, that is, you are either born with the ability or not. It is commonplace to hear students exclaim, “I can’t do maths!” The idea that there is a “maths gene” traps people into acceptance of their mathematics struggles. Collectively and intentionally, as a nation, we must change this narrative. There are no maths genes and mastery only comes from practice.

Additionally, there are other myths and misconceptions surrounding maths that must be dispelled with urgency. Examples are:

•You have to be very intelligent to be good at maths;

•Most people are bad at maths, so it is OK if you are not good at the subject; and

•Maths isn’t necessary for most occupations.

The lack of mathematics confidence and the presence of maths anxiety, as seen in many students, stem from the fixed mindset notion. Our mindsets are shaped by the people around us and therefore students must be offered support and encouragement even when mistakes are made. Every person would have made mistakes while learning maths. This is part of the process. Educators and parents must therefore talk positively about maths, which is essential in building that growth mindset.

Some of the fixed mindset phrases that I have personally heard are:

•I’m not good at maths;

•I’m just a failure; or

•I hate maths.

How our parents and teachers respond to these exclamations is critical in changing the mindset. Good responses would be:

•Everyone can do maths; you will improve if you continue to practice;

•It’s OK if you find this hard, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t do maths. It just means you haven’t got this concept yet;

•Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes can actually be a good thing; they help you to learn; or

•Let’s see if we can tackle this problem in a different way.

Promoting a positive attitude towards maths in the classroom begins with the teacher. The presentation of a lesson is reflected in the student’s attitude. A lacklustre lesson will lead to disengaged and bored students. However, when a teacher instils excitement and passion in the classroom, the student will mirror this passion. We want students to become excited and passionate about mathematics.

Teachers must also recognise when a student is suffering from maths anxiety. This is a serious barrier to engagement and progress in the maths classroom. Healthy learning cannot take place when a child is apprehensive about the subject. If you try to teach a pupil in a maths anxious state, he/she will not hear you.

There are tools and techniques available to reduce anxiety and to build confidence. Take the student through the comfort zone where the student is given familiar tasks which builds self-confidence before heading into new learning. Progress in maths is strongly based on foundational knowledge, hence students must achieve mastery in each topic before moving on.

This being said, it is important to note that a parent’s attitude towards maths can easily trickle down to children. So we must be mindful of how we speak about the subject. Perhaps you were not good at maths when you were a child. Do not let this be reason to speak negatively about the subject. I encourage parents to make connections between real life and maths to their children. Let it become a part of their world. We must unblock those maths filters in our children’s brains and become their maths allies. No one can escape mathematics as it is basic to life.

DR KARLA HYLTON

Dr Karla Hylton is the founder and CEO of Your Empowerment Solutions (YES) Institute, offering mathematics and science tutoring as well as a host of workshops for parents, teachers, and students. She is the author of Yes! You Can Help Your Child Achieve Academic Success and Complete Chemistry for Caribbean High Schools . Reach her at (876) 564-1347, e-mail: ceo@yes-institute.com, or visit www.yes-institute.com, or www.khylton.com.

Dr Karla Hylton

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