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- Why Race? Why Mathematics? Listening and Learning with Black Mathematics Teachers - August 31, 2021
- It Starts at Home: What Parents Can Do to Support Their High School Students in Advanced Mathematics (Part III: It's Cultivated at Home) - August 20, 2012
- It Starts at Home:What Parents Can Do to Support Their High School Students in Advanced Mathematics (Part 2: In and Out-of-School Strategies) - August 13, 2012
- It Starts at Home: How Parents Can Support Their High School Students in Advanced Mathematics (Part 1: Rethinking Smartness) - July 20, 2012
“I’m always amazed that you are so good at math. I was so bad at it.” “You get the math gene from your father."
My mother has been known to say things of this nature to me when we discuss my career endeavors and future aspirations. Little does she know that she prepped me for success in mathematics without even being aware of it. Though those “letters that were supposed to be numbered” (my mother’s description of algebra) may have looked confusing to her when I sat down to do my Algebra II homework, she was able to instill a sense of confidence about the content that did not require her full knowledge of it.
My mother is not alone in her disdain for mathematics. As a former high school mathematics teacher and current mathematics teacher educator, I have had numerous parents make similar comments to me over the years. I am asked often what parents, particularly those of older students, can do to help their sons and daughters be successful in mathematics. Many times, parents of students enrolled in advanced high school mathematics courses are at a loss for what they can do to help their students (outside of going back to school and re-learning Precalculus). While some parents of high school students enlist the help of tutors and pour money into out-of-school resources, there are some things that parents can do that require no expertise in advanced mathematics and cost little to no money. Some of these are taken from my own personal experiences, while others come from my work and research in mathematics education. In Part 1 of this article, I will discuss how parents can help students create a mindset for success.Help students see themselves as mathematicians, and debunk the argument that some people are just “math people.” Click To Tweet
Let us begin by clearing up one of the biggest misconceptions about learning mathematics. There is no such thing as a “math gene” that makes some successful at mathematics and others fail miserably (Sorry Mom!). In fact, there is research that supports that all humans possess innate mathematical reasoning abilities. Most who find success in mathematics are not predisposed to be successful at it. I would be willing to bet for each person who claims they are not a “math person,” I could trace their statement to a person, a group of people, or a negative experience that is the source of the insecurity – not a genetic trait.
Most learning occurs through interactions with others, and that is how we begin to shape and define ourselves as learners. If one is constantly placed in the low-tracked group because they work slower than other students, or if one is always praised for getting the correct answer before everyone else, they may begin to see themselves as incapable or gifted in mathematics based on their respective experiences. While equating speed with smartness is troubling in and of itself, what is more troubling is that these notions of smartness tend to follow students throughout their academic careers; and thus, at an early age, the divide into “math folks” and “non-math folks” begins.
I’ve been challenged with an opposing argument that there are exceptionalities in intelligence and that some people are just naturally talented at certain vocations. I would agree with this argument, but I’d also argue that this is extremely rare. This is why those with extraordinary talent usually garner an incredible amount of attention. Even people with these rare talents exert an incredible amount of time and effort to hone and perfect their skills. Have I witnessed young children doing algebra and calculus usually reserved for older adolescents and adults? Yes. On the other hand, I have also taught “gifted” mathematics courses full of students who were intelligent, but not any more so than other students who were not in these courses.
Over my years of teaching, I have noticed some common characteristics across these students who are highly successful in advanced mathematics courses. They are usually told from an early age how wonderful and talented that they are, and they act upon what they are told. They put in the time and effort necessary to be successful in advanced mathematics courses, and, in many cases, they have someone (like a parent, grandparent, or teacher) who follows up with them to ensure their success.
Ultimately, I say all of this to suggest that parents help their students rethink and broaden what it means to be “smart” in mathematics. Remind your high schoolers that by making it to higher-level mathematics courses, they have proven that they deserve to be there. Further, there are so many ways to exhibit mathematical talent. While one person may be skilled at working with numbers, another person may have exceptional spatial reasoning, and another may be a gifted programmer. Highly successful doers of mathematics do not have to be calculator-carrying, pocket-protector-wearing, socially inept recluses (Though I do have those moments from time to time). Recalling my own experiences, I did not see myself as a mathematician until a teacher started calling me one. Further, my parents and teachers never made being a little Black girl interested in mathematics seem like a rare occurrence or an anomaly. We have to begin to normalize success in mathematics, and that is something that can certainly come from home.
Dismiss and encourage your student to rule out the excuse of just not being a “math person.” Most of us would be aghast of a parent who said, “Little Johnny just isn’t a reader, and neither was I.” Let’s work to make excellence in mathematics the rule, not the exception.
What are some ways in which you encourage your students to be "smart" in mathematics?