By Stacy Palen.
I have a TON of math-phobic students in my classes. I teach at an open-enrollment university, where the majority of students test into Developmental Math. Many of these students have such poor math skills that they are enrolled in Math 0950, which begins with counting and the number line and culminates with percentages.
We have no structure here to make sure that these students pass their quantitative literacy classes before they take astronomy.
I feel quite strongly that everyone can do basic math. More importantly, everyone should. If their numeracy does not improve, these students will be taken advantage of by banks and credit card companies and salespeople and loan officers with every major (or not so major) purchase, all the rest of their lives.
I can make an argument that is compelling to myself that the financial crash of 2008 was caused in large part by people who did not understand how to calculate mortgage payments. So the lack of numeracy in the population has larger implications than just whether they score well on an astronomy exam.
Because I don’t want to send the students out the door like lambs to the slaughter, but I simultaneously don’t want them to hate me, I’m always on the lookout for tips and tricks about learning things that are hard.
Ages ago, I learned about the “growth mindset.” That’s the idea that success comes from working hard at things, rather than innate talent.
Focusing on growth mindset turns out to be particularly useful for underrepresented groups, who for better or worse don’t see the talent route as available to them. People in underrepresented groups often internalize this. They think: if people “like them” were “naturally good” at x, more people like them would do x.
When you want to encourage students, it’s hard to think of a quick motto that encapsulates all this. And it’s not always obvious how to make use of the idea that maybe students just need more practice to feel proficient.
This is why I recently took note of this article in the New York Times, about learning patience.
The author of the article makes the point that “patience, the ability to keep calm in the face of disappointment, distress or suffering, is worth cultivating.”
I could instantly see how a more patient person would do better with mathematics than a less patient person, especially if they had learned to fear math. There’s a lot in the article about how to interrupt the function of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that stimulates that frantic, impatient reaction to everyday frustrations like slow-moving cashiers or slow-loading web pages. Or calculator malfunction. Or algebra. It’s worth a read.
But the thing that caught my eye was this motto: “Train, don’t try.”
Mathematics is not a matter of sheer willpower: just trying harder will not make you numerate! Instead, students need to systematically practice problems of gradually increasing difficulty -- repeating as necessary -- until their ability grows and develops, just like a muscle would.
This is why I insist that they do math in my class, and it’s why I start them doing it during lab time when I (and their peers) can give them pointers on their technique and their methods.
So I’m going to try the experiment of explicitly pointing out the connection between developing patience and developing math skill. And I will encourage my students to “Train, don’t try.”
I bet I will have to try it more than once to get it right.