Not Made for Math? Think Again
How to Turn Every Student Into a Math Person

Blog post Dave Raney, SREB Chief Editor

Adrienne Dumas has heard it from kids for years, like so many teachers and parents: “I just don’t have a math brain.”

A math teacher at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Mississippi, Dumas disagrees, and with good reason — her Algebra 1 and geometry students have a 100 percent passing rate for the past three years on the state test. Dumas and other teachers offer their tips for math success in a recent SREB High Schools That Work newsletter.

Dumas incorporates research into her classroom to unleash students’ confidence and willingness to learn. She knows that cultivating a growth mindset is “a work in progress every day,” but she cites Boaler’s Seven Guidelines as a touchstone, particularly the first: “Everyone can learn math to the highest levels.” There is no such thing, she says, as a “math person.”

Dumas also insists that errors are valuable, and even necessary — an opportunity for the brain (quite literally) to grow. “We glorify mistakes,” she says, “because we know mistakes are opportunities to learn. It’s not just about the answer; it’s about the journey to the answer.”

“Everyone can learn math to the highest levels.”

Math consultant Myra Cannon agrees that kids learn best in a classroom where incorrect answers are okay: “We learn more by analyzing a wrong answer and discussing the misconceptions than by getting a correct answer the first time.” 

Mathematics Design Collaborative strategies help kids, and teachers, find those answers. In Kimberly Livengood’s first year at Mt. Pleasant High School in Tennessee, just 17 percent of the school’s Algebra II students scored at the Proficient or Advanced level on the state assessment. After three years of MDC in the classroom, 80 percent did. Assignments included “a paper or written report, or a project that represents the math they’ve learned.” Livengood watched students grow in both confidence and understanding, and “I became passionate about telling other teachers about MDC.”

“We glorify mistakes… It’s about the journey to the answer.”

Daily learning targets can also spur math passion. More like road signs than standards, targets indicate what a student should know at the end of each lesson. Math consultant Donna Farmer calls this the difference between “biopsy” and “autopsy” — targets bring math to life. More than 50 research studies confirm that students given such clearly defined goals score, on average, 34 percentile points higher on tests than control groups.

These lessons can clearly awaken the math mind within. Stan Winborne of Granville County Schools in North Carolina was a Spanish teacher before he became director of high schools, and Michael Wyrick, now Granville’s assistant superintendent, taught English Language Arts. “But when we started going to these MDC trainings,” Winborne says, “we thought, Yes! If I had had this, I would have been a math person!”

Read about more math strategies and success stories from the 2017 High Schools That Work staff development conference in Nashville.