There are five simple words that take a math teacher’s blood pressure from stable to boiling. These words cause their brain to go into overdrive as they start to gather their thoughts for an impending argument. They turn calm, genial educators into passionate defenders of their content. These words are “I’m not a math person.”
This phrase, often uttered by someone at their wits’ end with a particular problem or equation, indicates that they don’t believe they have the innate ability to do math. This article from the Atlantic identifies that this mindset often comes from the different levels of preparation every student has before the first day of school even starts. The article states that “unprepared students, not realizing that the top scorers were well prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they ‘just aren’t math people,’ they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B scholars were simply unprepared, assume that they are ‘math people,’ and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage. Thus, a student’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
At RePublic, our scholars know that their success in the classroom is a function of the work they put in, not their DNA. We teach scholars that math is a skill like any other. We teach scholars that it takes practice to develop this skill. Although there will always be a certain amount of unseen work that students put in through homework or additional practice, we challenge this self-fulfilling prophecy by making student thinking visible every day, in class.
One way we do this is through Cognitively Guided Instruction, or CGI. CGI is an approach to teaching math that meets students where they are and pushes them slightly forward each day. The research on which CGI is based shows that students can solve problems with no direct instruction by using informal knowledge of everyday situations. Each day in class, students solve one problem independently by showing multiple strategies. After this work time, students (chosen by their teacher) present their work to the class. This allows all students to grow by seeing strategies that their peers used that they can try out in future lessons. With CGI, the different levels of preparation are celebrated and explored.
At Nashville Prep, 5th grade student Jose agrees. Reflecting on his growth as a mathematician, he explained, “In the beginning of the year I was really shy. Now, I like sharing because it’s like we’re the teachers and we get to show our work to the class.” His classmate, Shiloh, loves CGI for a different reason. “It helps me a lot because when I get the answer wrong I can see how other students did it and I can go home and practice.” Jose adds, “It motivates me to work harder, because when other people share it makes me want to try out new strategies tomorrow.”
Jose and Shiloh’s teacher, Ms. Barnes, reflected on the changes she’s seen throughout the year. “A lot more students are feeling more comfortable to fail. What’s great is that they don’t need to get the answer right, they just need to show their thinking and improve for tomorrow.” At the beginning of the year, Ms. Barnes saw blank papers every day from her students that were nervous about being wrong. Now, she sees that her students all try multiple strategies in the hope of presenting their work to the class.
Jose and Shiloh have not always loved math. But when asked whether or not they are now “math people”, their responses were definitive:
“Yes, I am a math person.”
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