Maths – there’s a problem!

I’ve been reading two reports (Caygill, Hanlar, & Singh, 2016; Caygill, Singh, & Hanlar, 2016), that share information in relation to Aotearoa New Zealand and the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). I was excited to read that our Year 5 and Year 9 teachers are engaging in professional development around maths – more so than teachers in many other countries who completed the survey. This excitement morphed into melancholy when I found that our teachers, in comparison with teachers from numerous other participating countries, have less confidence in maths teaching activities.

With greater engagement in professional development, I’m left to wonder why confidence levels are not also greater. From informal discussions with teachers, it’s evident that maths does not appear to be a popular part of the teaching day for some (or many?). What is it about maths that creates this reduced teaching confidence? In amongst my wonderings, I thought about the beliefs and attitudes that teachers may hold around maths, and the twelve mathematical myths (Smith, 2009) came to mind:

  1. Men are better than women in maths.
  2. Maths requires logic, not intuition.
  3. You must always know how you got the answer.
  4. Maths is not creative.
  5. There is a best way to do a maths problem.
  6. It’s always important to get the answer exactly right.
  7. It’s bad to count on your fingers.
  8. Mathematicians do problems quickly, in their heads.
  9. Maths requires a good memory.
  10. Maths is done by working intensely until the problem is solved.
  11. Some people have a “maths mind” and some don’t.
  12. There is a magic key to doing maths.

Dear math

I have difficulty with most of the myths above, though it was concerning for me to find my head nodding just a tad at a couple! On reading them, was your head nodding as you read?  Or did you have difficulty with any, or all, of them? From my difficulty in believing, along with my head nodding, I moved to thinking what the potential impact on both teaching and learning might be if teachers do carry a belief in these myths, and I came up with a whirlwind of thoughts and questions as I reread the myths one-by-one, so I quickly jotted them down.

  1. Men are better than women in maths. Are males really better at maths than females, or is it the belief of that myth which leads to higher expectations of males by teachers, which may then become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or is it the social norms that lead individuals to believe that maths is a ‘male’ domain in learning and employment? Or are males actually better at maths than females?
  2. Maths requires logic, not intuition. Does intuition play a part in the first attack of a problem that needs solving … or does it always come down to logic?
  3. You must always know how you got the answer. What happens if you just don’t know how you got the answer … does that make you wrong?
  4. Maths is not creative. Are a variety of patterns and relationships that are inherent within maths discussed with learners, or with other teachers? Is the wondrous use of fingers when multiplying by nine shared and discussed? Or is the way to check for correctness by adding together the digits of those ‘times 9’ answers explored? Here’s a video link that might provide a dose of mathematical wonder. 
  5. There is a best way to do a maths problem. If variety is the spice of life, then might it also be the spice of maths?
  6. It’s always important to get the answer exactly right. We round numbers and ‘play’ with them in everyday life, so if we’re wanting students to gain an understanding of everyday maths, is it okay to be less exact in the classroom at times?
  7. It’s bad to count on your fingers. How many of us had our hands smacked with a ruler when using our fingers to work with numbers? Should finger counting only be used by students learning at lower levels of the New Zealand curriculum? You might like to access this resource for some interesting information.
  8. Mathematicians do problems quickly, in their heads. How many classes in our schools have the weekly speed test? Does any learning occur for the learners from these tests? Can individual teachers justify why these tests are used, or not, in the classroom?
  9. Maths requires a good memory. If a good memory is essential for maths, then is understanding of maths needed? Is it memory that’s required, or is it our positive attitude, energy, effort, and learning from our mistakes that’s required?
  10. Maths is done by working intensely until the problem is solved. Can any of us describe/explain other areas of life where we’re given a problem and are expected to work at it until we find a solution? If not, then why might we expect this with maths work?
  11. Some people have a “maths mind” and some don’t. How would you describe a maths mind? What makes you think that there is or isn’t such a thing?
  12. There is a magic key to doing maths. A magic key? Does that unlock all the information, or, again, does our energy, effort, and learning from mistakes enable us to do maths?

Maths Rockx

I’m hoping the questions I’ve asked prompt you to consider your own beliefs around maths and the teaching and learning that surrounds maths in your classroom. I thought I’d leave you with a challenge … provide one or more of the questions above to teachers to consider prior to a team, syndicate, or staff meeting. They’ll then (hopefully) be prepared and encouraged to discuss, reflect and consider their own, and others’, beliefs around maths and maths teaching. If we give time to consider the maths myths that we, as teachers, carry, then perhaps there’s an opportunity to bust those myths and build confidence with maths teaching activities.

Julie Whyte

 

References

Caygill, R., Singh, S., & Hanlar, V. (2016). Mathematics: Year 5: Trends over 20 years in TIMSS: Findings from TIMSS 2014/15.  Wellington: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/180388/TIMSS-2014-Maths-Y5-Report.pdf

Caygill, R., Hanlar, V. & Singh, S. (2016). Mathematics: Year 9: Trends over 20 years in TIMSS: Findings from TIMSS 2014/15.  Wellington: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/180342/TIMSS-2014-15-Mathematics-Year-9-Trends-Over-20-Years-in-TIMSS.pdf

Smith, K.J. (2009). Mathematics: Its power and utility (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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