It’s a new year, a new decade and a new Academic year, which most likely means a new set of minds to mould! You’ve got a spring in your step and, armed with lesson plans and brand-spanking-new stationary, you’re ready to meet your class after a well-earned break.
With the new term brings an opportunity to start afresh; a clean slate waiting for new classroom behaviour policies, innovative teaching techniques and better self-management practices to be scribbled all over it. Your students, too, have a refreshing chance to reinvent themselves. However, there are some habits that are tricky to shake.
Whilst we love mathematics, we understand that our sentiment isn’t always shared by students (and sometimes teachers)… yet! Maths can bring with it a unique type of anxiety – fears of failure and fixed ideas about ability which manifest in the form of disinterest and sometimes complete disengagement with the subject.
“But Miss… why do we even have to learn this?”
“I hate maths”
“But Sir, I’m no good at fractions”
… Sound familiar? Perhaps now just a distant memory, diluted by your Christmas holiday ‘zen’, but we’re sure you’ve heard similar groans in your classroom, as have teachers of maths around the world.
Why is mathematics notoriously associated with negative attitudes which can often stick with a learner for life?
Carol Dweck gives compelling research into the power of fostering a Growth Mindset (rather than a fixed mindset) in order to succeed in mathematics. If you haven’t already, check out her TED talk which highlights interesting findings from her study.
Simply put, if a child doesn’t believe that they can improve in mathematics, they probably won’t. A fixed mindset attitude towards maths can stick around with a person for life, if they’re not careful. We’ve heard teachers make anti-maths slurs such as ‘I’m just not a numbers person’ or ‘Not all children are naturally talented at maths’.
Children (and adults!) who worry too much about failure will be less likely to take on challenges in maths due to the fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Having this kind of fixed mindset can be difficult to change; especially for learners who have developed ‘maths anxiety’ from negative past experiences. The good news is, your classroom environment and teaching activities can have a huge positive impact on your students.
We’ve listed five of our favourite strategies to improve students’ attitude towards maths, all of which you can try out today.
1. Celebrate mistakes
… and show students how to learn from them.
All together now… ‘Mistakes help us learn!’. Your students should know that at some point, maths will become tough and that they need to be prepared to fail and try again in order to succeed.
Talk to your students about the value of making mistakes, and that struggling is all part of the learning process. We know many teachers who have a ‘pen only’ policy for jotting down working out in mathematics, encouraging students to neatly cross out their mistakes (rather than erasing them) to remind themselves of the learning process.
Use language which emphasises on the process, rather than the final answer. For example, rather than asking ‘Who can tell me the answer to two thirds of 72?’, questioning students to explain the first step of the problem or asking which operations would be used in the problem solving process. This allows your less confident students to ‘have a go’ without the pressure of arriving at a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ final answer.
Embed activities into your lessons which promote the value in learning from mistakes. You could include ‘spot the mistake’ or ‘correct my answer’ starter/plenary questions whereby students have to identify and explain a deliberate mistake. Watch this video to see how this teacher uses mistakes made by students in a positive way to help the group learn.
Model problem solving inclusive of mistake making. It’s useful for students to observe the whole process: complete a maths problem (making a visible mistake in the working out); check your answer at the end (e.g. with an estimation or inverse checking method); highlight that the answer doesn’t seem right; revisit the problem, checking every step; highlight the mistake; correct the mistake; and finally, check the answer again at the end.
Encourage the use of different methods to solve problems, even if the answer is correct. Giving rich, open-ended maths tasks also helps students to understand that maths doesn’t always have to be black or white; yes or no; right or wrong. Mathematics is about being creative, curious and making connections. Try giving students tasks such as ‘If my answer is six… what could the question be?’, and showcase some of the more creative questions to the class.
2. Praise wisely
The way in which you reward students with your words can greatly impact their perception of their own ability in mathematics.
Don’t only praise students when they get the answer correct, praise throughout the learning process. This is particularly important in maths lessons to encourage resilience when problem solving.
Praise the process rather than the person. Receiving praise such as “You’re so clever!” isn’t helpful for learners; this instigates a fixed mindset of ability and doesn’t include useful feedback of what they can continue to do to improve. Telling a student, “You worked really hard to solve that problem” or “Well done for using estimation to check your answer at the end” gives more meaningful feedback on what behaviours they should continue to do in future. Try praising students for their effort, strategies used, being resilient and learning from their mistakes.
Avoid ‘over-praising’. Praising students too often, especially when students complete tasks which are easy for them can actually have a detrimental effect. The value can be lost, and students may feel more inclined to opt for easier to solve problems that taking on a challenge.
3. Promote cooperation over competition
To foster a growth mindset, students need to believe that they can get better at maths. For this, students should be measured against their own personal achievements rather than being compared to their peers, all of whom have different starting points. Help your students help each other to make progress by providing opportunities for collaborative learning during maths lessons, rather than creating a competitive environment.
Group your students into mixed ability groupings to allow students to learn from each other
Provide opportunity for students to problem solve in teams. Encourage students to talk through the steps aloud, explaining their thought process to one another.
Be aware that timed tasks can pressurise students, and use these carefully. Students should understand that depth of thinking in mathematics is more important than speed.
4. Don’t restrict maths to maths lessons
Students who understand the part that mathematics plays in the world we live in are much more likely to engage with the subject in a positive way. Create cross curricular links where possible both within maths lessons and outside of.
Try out giving homework where students have to find real examples of maths being used in everyday life. We like this one as it opens up dialog back in the classroom, whilst encouraging children to talk about maths at home.
Collaborate! If you share teaching time with your class, communicate what has been covered in maths and work together to try and embed this in other lessons. Could your colleague who teaches the art class encourage students to use mathematical ratios to mix paint colours?
Use maths examples which are interesting and relevant to students. Get creative here, and move with the times! One of our favourite real world maths links, used by a teacher in our MathsClub team, is explaining cube numbers by discussing how internet content goes viral. Imagine three people each sharing a video with three friends, and those three friends sharing with three of their own friends, and so on. We liked this not only for its relevance but also because it helped students to understand how quickly online content can spread, highlighting the need to be ‘internet safety savvy’.
5. Practice what you preach!
Recognise your own mindset, and be mindful of how you project this onto your class.
It’s useful to self-assess your own mindset, both generally and related to mathematics. Is there a particular mathematical topic you don’t personally enjoy teaching? Perhaps you still lack confidence in some areas which you struggled with whilst you were at school. How do you feel when faced with a difficult task?
Consider auditing your mindset towards students in your class. Do you already have perceptions of which students might be good at maths, and which won’t ever get there? It’s important to recognise and challenge this so that you do not ‘box’ your students by ability.
Which of the teaching techniques above have you already tried out, and what results did you see? Do you have any other tried and tested teaching tips which have helped to transform the way students view maths? We’d love to hear from you… share your success stories with us in the comments below.
Good luck for your first week back at school, from all of us at MathsClub.