Education Expert: How a Shift in the Current Math Mindset Can Impact the Global Future

A widespread lack of self-confidence in math has slowly crept its way into American society.

High school students

It's no secret that math is a subject many find challenging, possibly even intimidating. Too often, we hear both adults and students openly proclaim themselves as "bad at math," stating they "just can't do it." This widespread lack of self-confidence in math has slowly crept its way into American society, resulting in an environment where it is acceptable for students and parents to lack strong math skills.

As someone with a long career in education publishing who now leads teams to develop K-12 curricula and programs, I feel close to this issue and want to explore it further.

This acceptance for lacking strong math skills is what creates the self-perceived identity of being "bad at math," which often overshadows the dream of solving global problems, or pursuing a math-related career, leading students to abandon the desire to master the subject altogether.

When compared to 77 other education systems around the world, the U.S. average math literacy score was lower than the average in 30 education systems according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And for the last two decades, we've made little improvement in that ranking.

In the last decade, NAEP scores have revealed a lack of significant math progress for our students, showing little improvement as scores show insignificant change year-after-year across all grade levels.

Today, with pandemic-disrupted learning creating even greater gaps in math achievement, and the most recent NAEP test scores showing the first-ever year-over-year decline in math, students are falling behind faster than we've historically ever seen.

This overall lack of math aptitude has implications far beyond simply not being able to do long division by hand. It has a downstream impact on critical thinking, analytical abilities and being prepared to enter the workforce or college.

Additionally, we as a society are at a critical point in history, faced with many pressing global challenges and opportunities. The answers to climate change, pollution, food scarcity, space exploration and the continuation of advanced technology require math to unlock what lies ahead.

By bringing these very real-world examples into the classroom, I believe math teachers can meet the challenge of making the subject meaningful and engaging for students, creating context around why math matters and grounding it in its impact outside the classroom.

Like anything else in life, math mastery cannot be learned overnight; it takes time, attention and practice to develop skills. In an age of instant gratification and constant distraction, getting a child to focus and practice math skills is easier said than done.

Interesting problems, such as performing calculations to ensure a building's design is safe or how to clean up the pollution in a lake, combined with the prospect of exciting math-driven careers, like working for NASA or in aerospace, being an architect, an engineer or scientist, are essential to creating engagement.

When students can see their math skills reflected in real-life examples and issues they care about, they can develop an innate desire to practice math. This helps them to overcome one of the largest obstacles for building strong math skills in the first place: the math mindset.

This is where I believe the role of the teacher is critical.

An effective math teacher can change the trajectory of a child's perception of math. Rather than allowing a child to give up and categorize themselves as bad at math, the teacher has an opportunity to help a student look at a problem differently and approach it in another way to create the "aha!" moment.

A math teacher recently gave an example of this, speaking about a former student who was disengaged and uninterested in math as a young child. As the school year went on, the teacher noticed the student's interest in robotics; in an effort to engage the student more in his math studies, the teacher used robotics in math problems and lesson applications. As a result of this change in math mindset, the student became highly engaged and learned to love math, becoming a very successful engineer leading sustainable energy projects.

This added step of helping a student reframe their thinking to look at a problem differently gives teachers the power to change the perception of the math identity from "I am bad at math" to "I can become" or "I am good at math." This process not only strengthens a child's math skills, but also develops the critical thinking, confidence and perseverance necessary to keep going when something is hard.

These skills are essential for future generations and are powerful keys to solving the world's most challenging problems. We must stop accepting it's okay to be bad at math, and stop labeling ourselves as such. Instead, we must empower our students to believe they really can do and accomplish anything through practice and a shift in their mindset.

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