This week’s post has been written by Guest Educator, Loris Mullins. A specialised teacher of gifted, ESL and general primary education, Loris worked in California for over 20 years. She has now taken her expertise overseas where she leads a team of education advisors to transform local schools. She also developed the Honeycomb; a programme for teaching multiplication/division, facts and concepts to students.
In this post, Loris looks at the negative messages surrounding maths and how they can have a detrimental effect on our children. She also offers valuable tips on how parents can buffer these negative messages and provide a positive experience of maths, leading to greater success.
“I can’t do math” she said with a shrug.
“Yes you can, Serena, you just don’t know it yet”. This was the daily exchange I had in my fourth grade classroom in California. Serena, a lovely girl, bright and sparkly, loved to dance, read and write. She was both creative and joyful and yet, somewhere along the line, she had made the decision that she “can’t do math”.
So I wondered, why did this happen? Why did she and thousands of boys and mainly girls, myself and my daughter included, make this decisive and deliberate decision so early in life? After all, this is a decision that had the potential to change their lives significantly, and not necessarily for the better. I thought about my own experience. Years of telling myself and anyone who would listen that I couldn’t do math. Indeed, I believed I was genetically incapable. Yet, I was told by my university statistics professor that I thought like a mathematician. I discovered that I excelled at logic, statistics, and I that I do love it! I devour student data and spend hours deciphering the story it tells. I wonder how my career path might have been different if I hadn’t erroneously decided so early on that I couldn’t do math?
In fourth grade, my daughter was dealing with severe math anxiety. She would literally get nauseous when the math books came out. At that point I was a brand new teacher and I couldn’t figure it out. What happened? What could I have done differently as her mother? By the way, I later learned that fourth grade is when it usually can happen and it has a lot to do with the absurd way we teach multiplication and division. I was so shocked that it was being taught the same way I didn’t learn it, that I designed a whole new way to teach it.
I have also come to the conclusion that subconsciously we send the negative math message to our kids because it is really about your attitude towards maths as a parent. Even though I never consciously turned my daughter against math, I sent a subconscious message that it was not fun. It was a chore and it was hard. I wasn’t alone in this. Listen to what’s on TV? Listen to your friends. What is the prevailing narrative? That maths is hard and you are a nerd, unpopular, weird, if you like maths. Certainly the idea that girls can’t do math has long been a prevailing narrative and recognized as such. Thus, there are programmes to proactively reframe the narrative through STEM and other initiatives. Indeed, you don’t need to go further than the popular tv show “Big Bang Theory” to get the negative math message.
Math: what can you do as parents of a little person?
The answer is you can do a lot! You are the first and foremost authority on everything in your child’s early years, (sadly that won’t last long!). Given that you have a brief but profound role in shaping your child’s attitude towards math, you have to proactively exploit it; offer an alternate reality and buffer the barrage of negative messaging that is about to come their way. You can arm your child with a healthy attitude toward maths because you have the advantage of being first in line.
The first step in the process is to examine how you feel about math. Clean out the mental cupboard of all your bad experiences and find something you liked about maths. I remember when my three year-old son showed me a spider in his hand. My inclination was to run screaming from the scene, but since I did not want my son to grow up with a bad attitude about the creatures of this world, I pretended that I loved that spider, answered a flood of questions about spiders and created a culture of loving spiders in our home. If I can pretend to love a spider for the sake of my future naturalist, you can pretend to love math for your budding mathematician and for the sake of our collective future; fake it until it becomes real.
The second step is to have a conversation with all the adults that are in your child’s life: sitters, grandparents, spouse, etc. Explain your intention to send a strong message that math is fun and ask them to refrain from negative math talk, particularly: “I never could do math” or “I hated math”. This kind of talk gives the child a role model for the negative and makes it OK to hate math.
Next, integrate thinking and problem solving talk in your discourse with the child. You will be amazed at the soft skills that this will also promote: “I see we have a problem? How do you think we can solve it?”.
Finally, math games, math play, integrating math talk into daily life, and music. Music like maths is another language and there are a myriad of connections between math and music that are still being researched. Play classical music to your child when they are falling asleep at nap time or bedtime. A bit of Mozart goes a long way to developing your child’s math acuity.
If you look online you will find a treasure trove of ideas and I have added some of my own ideas and some websites at the bottom of this article. However, all the math games in the world will not change the reality if you don’t clear the air of the negative math ideas in your head.
Remember Serena? We had that conversation every single day. I never let her off the hook, nor did I ever agree or reinforce the idea that she couldn’t do math. In the end she scored very high on her math exams and came running up to me and shouted: “Mrs. Mullins I can do math!” Serena was one of my favourite victories! Sometimes it really is all about what we say.
Ideas on how to have fun with math
- Play board games and cards. These teach strategy, logic, sorting, number sense and a myriad of numeracy skills.
- Encourage your pre-schooler to count objects, rather than just count out loud. Make it a tangible experience.
- Let your child cook with you. Let them help you measure, talk about the shapes of the cookies, count the chocolate chips in a cookie.
The element of play, fun and joy that comes with reading can be the same with math. Look for books that combine stories with math ideas and talk about them. Transfer the idea to something they can see or touch in the home. For example, read The Greedy Triangle and then find and count the angles in a room.
Here are a few of the thousands of websites to explore:
Written by: Loris Mullins