Don't Create Math Trauma by Shaming Students' Curiosity

Sep 14, 2022 12:08:18 PM


If you ask the average person how math was taught to them as a child, they’ll more than likely tell you that their teacher taught them how to solve problems step-by-step, but never took the time to explain the rationale for the steps.  

This misguided approach to teaching math comes up often on the Radical Math Talk podcast.

In too many math classrooms, then and now, students’ burning desires to expand their knowledge beyond just working the standard computations were frowned upon, then extinguished. In my interview with Deborah Peart a few months back, she shared a story of how her fourth-grade math teacher made her fall out of love with math:

“By sixth grade, I was already over math. In math class, when I asked questions, I was being sassy. 

I remember my bully from elementary school was my fourth grade teacher—not another student. I remember learning multi-digit multiplication and the question that I asked was, ‘So wait a minute, there's one zero, and then there's two zeros, and then there's three zeros. Will that go on forever? Why does that work?’ I remember being so excited and wanting to know and I remember her saying, “Stop asking so many questions and just follow the steps.”

Sadly, math stories like Deborah’s are far too common. In literacy classes, when students ask questions or express their curiosity around a passage they’re reading, teachers are more welcoming of those inquiries and will even engage in extended conversation. In science class, asking questions during a lab or  experiment is highly encouraged, as it is a major part of the scientific method. In history classes, students ask questions about how the events of the past connect to or impact what’s happening in our society today.  

Fellow Teachers, Building Math Curiosity Starts with Us

I don’t know why this is the case, but curiosity and inquisitiveness are two qualities that simply aren’t valued enough in our math classrooms. 

I always find it amazing how some teachers complain about certain students not being engaged in math class, but when those same students express the slightest appetite to deepen their knowledge about the content, they get shut down. For the record, it’s not every math teacher who engages in this behavior, but the reality is, there are too many who do.  

If we’re truly committed to increasing student engagement in math class and helping students develop their math proficiency, then we must start that work with ourselves. 

Our students will only go as high as the expectations we set for them. To get your mindset ready for the new school year, here are a few questions you should strongly consider:

  • In your opinion, what does it mean for a student to be literate in math?
  • How does your definition of math literacy inform your instructional approach as a facilitator?
  • Do you personally hold any insecurities or trauma that stem from the gaps you have in your mathematical understanding?
  • Do you engage your students in number talks that allow them to explore, discover, and be exposed to the interconnectedness of the mathematical representations and concepts they are taught?
  • When a student shares an incorrect answer, do you give the student an opportunity to further articulate their reasoning in an effort to better understand how they are processing or thinking about the math content?
  • Does your classroom have a living word wall that is visible for students so they can strengthen their math vocabulary?
  • As a way to model effective math communication to your students, are you consistently using formal math vocabulary when explaining the different concepts you’re teaching them?
  • How often do you give your students opportunities to reflect on their mathematical thinking in and out of class?
  • When assessing computations performed by students, are you solely grading the final solution or grading each and every step of their problem solving process?
  • How often do you incorporate math stories or word problems into your math lessons with students? 

Our Children Must Know That Math Is a Language

When we fail to expose our students to all aspects of the mathematical learning experience, we cheat them out of the opportunity to be mathematically literate. How can we expect our students to appreciate the beauty of math if we limit their vision of what math truly is? 

In addition to reflecting on these questions, here are a couple additional tasks you can complete:

  • Use the 5 Strands of Mathematical Understanding as your foundation for your lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and instructional approach.
  • Howie Hua and Pam Harris both provide daily math explainer videos and challenges to help math teachers stretch their thinking around foundational math concepts. What’s great about their challenges is that they span all grade levels and can easily be administered to students. To access their videos, you can check both of them out on Twitter!

Our students must leave our classrooms knowing that math is so much more than solving complex computations. 

They must also know that math is a language. It gives us the ability to analyze data and put it in context—especially when that data is so often used to oppress us as Black and Brown people. Understanding math provides students with a lens for viewing the injustices that pervade our society.

In other words, the more we can get our most marginalized students to understand math in settings beyond the classroom, the better equipped those students will be to use math as a tool for their liberation.  

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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