By: Donna Lamonte
“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Winston Churchill
The critical thinkers, problem solvers and leaders of tomorrow are in our classrooms today. Creating a cl assroom culture in which children eagerly engage in difficult tasks, work collaboratively with peers, and understand that making mistakes is perhaps the most integral part of learning should be a primary goal of math te achers. The actions teachers take to foster a growth mindset among students not only impacts how students approach learning tasks within the school setting, but also how they tackle challenges in the outside world. The beginning of a new school year is a prime time for teacher s to examine their classroom practices and make a few subtle instructional shifts that will help students develop the mentality that with perseverance, dedication and hard work, they can achieve at high levels and find the joy in “doing math.”
Set students up for success
Positive, successful experiences with math translate into positive attitudes about math. Children who view math as a worksheet to complete or a set of problems to answer on a test feel tremendous pressure to work in isolation to find a single correct answer to each problem. It’s not surprising that students who view math through this lens experience some level of math anxiety. Imagine how children’s attitudes change when they are presented with challenging tasks knowing that they will be given ample time to explore multiple methods and solutions collaboratively with peers and will receive feedback throughout the process to help them review and revise their work. Allowing children the freedom to make mistakes may be the greatest gift we can give them. Success builds confidence and confidence helps keep math anxiety at bay.
Make lessons personal and purposeful
Help children discover the usefulness of math in their everyday lives. Whether it is lining up in order of height for a class photo, finding out how to divide a bag of cookies equally among classmates or determining the approximate cost to host a class pizza party, students need to see that math serves an important purpose in their everyday lives. Many children will not make this connection unless we point it out to them. Get in the habit of making daily comments that help students see how they use math every single day. Make your anchor tasks and challenges meaningful and relevant to your students. Teenagers who may not care about finding the difference in the populations of two cities will eagerly jump on the task of figuring out how much data is left on their monthly phone plan allotment. Little ones may not show enthusiasm for the skill of counting on one more, but will be quick to let you know how many candles will be on their birthday cake next year. When students understand that math is an integral part of their lives, they approach math lessons with a new sense of purpose.
Find the fun
One of the best ways to foster positive attitudes about math is by making math learning fun for students. Young children learn about math and the world around them through purposeful play. It is second nature for early childhood teachers to give students a variety of manipulatives and materials to help them discover new concepts. Pre-K and kindergarten children look forward to sorting, counting, or graphing toy cars and play figurines. First and second graders get excited about practicing their addition strategies by flipping over two playing cards to find the sum. Shouldn’t older students be given the same opportunity to build conceptual understanding through concrete experiences and playful challenges? Rather than asking older students to find the area of composite shapes on a worksheet, challenge them to use graph paper to create multiple composite shapes with an area 24 square inches. Ask them to talk about what they noticed about the perimeter of the different shapes. Then wait for the buzz of math talk and the sense of positive energy in the classroom. Even though it may look a little different in upper elementary grades, moving from concrete to pictorial to abstract is best practice for all math students. Students who are actively engaged, challenged and having fun will look forward to daily math lessons.
Get parents onboard
Unfortunately, children’s attitudes about math can be influenced by the negative comments made by parents based on their own experiences with math. We need to bring parents onboard and make them an integral part of our math positivity team. The best way to accomplish this is through communication and education. In your weekly or monthly newsletters, let parents know all of the exciting things your students are doing in math. Share photos of students actively engaged in math activities on their digital portfolios. Use your back to school meeting times and conference times as opportunities to talk to parents about the importance of fostering a growth mindset among students. Furthermore, provide parents with specific examples of comments that help children develop a growth mindset and promote positive attitudes about math. Send home positive notes or emails when you notice students having break-through moments in math. We need parents to partner with us to help children develop healthy positive math mindsets.
Children start out school with an innate sense of curiosity and joy in learning about the world. Teachers must sustain this positive momentum by providing meaningful, engaging and successful math experiences that enable students to see the relevance of math in their daily lives. By acknowledging students for their perseverance and hard work, teachers can help create classroom communities in which students feel comfortable taking risks and view mistakes as opportunities to learn. It is when students are actively engaged, challenged and having fun, that they will discover the joy of math. Attitude is everything!