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“I Was Never Very Good at Math…”

by Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D.

Bad at MathHave you heard this confession? Or have you spoken these words yourself? As a math educator, I hear these words far too often. For instance, when I’m on a plane, I usually strike up a conversation with the people around me. It doesn’t take long for them to find out that I used to be a math teacher. And then it happens…I get their math autobiography. And it’s rarely a happy story!

Way too many adults in the U.S. are eager to tell their horror stories about word problems and fractions and formulas and how math just never made sense. Far too many adults had bad experiences with school math and have carried that negative perception into adulthood.

We cannot afford for this to continue! We cannot afford for the next generation of children to go into adulthood without the tool set we call “mathematics” – one that everyone recognizes as critical to future success. We owe it to our children to prepare them for school and for life. They don’t all have to love math – but they all deserve to be comfortable and competent with the logic and thinking skills that mathematics provides.

So, what are we going to do to break this generational cycle of fear of mathematics and the bragging rights that come with it?

On the home front, make these seven words taboo! Encourage your children to persevere in their math work. Talk about how helpful math is when dealing with money, cooking, house repairs – anytime you can! When helping your child with homework, take a deep breath, and instead of speaking those now-taboo words, say something like, “Let’s figure this out together.” There are many online tools to help you do so. Websites such as www.learnzillion.com provide video support and explanations, including visual demonstrations for understanding math concepts.

On the school front, educators throughout Arizona are using mathematics standards that aim high for student thinking and understanding. Here’s something you need to know about these standards – they’re really nothing new! Great math teaching and learning always has always been and always will embody the content of these standards. Then end-game of these standards represents what we all experienced: using standard procedures (called algorithms) for things like multiplication facts, long division, fraction operations, and finding the value of “x.”

However, the standards begin with something all of us would have benefited from: use of visuals and language that build understanding, so when our children learn those procedures, they make sense. Imagine that – if we had all understood the math we were practicing as school children, we would never have needed those seven taboo words to begin with!

Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D., works with teachers and leaders to develop system-wide change in mathematics teaching and learning. She is the Chief Learning Officer at Rodel Foundation of Arizona and co-founding owner of KP Mathematics, LLC.

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