Promoting Mathematical Thinking

Promoting Mathematical Thinking

by Zane Latve, Mathematics Team Leader

Developing aptitude in Mathematics is like developing musical skill or athletic ability - one needs to practice it to get better. No one would expect to become an expert soccer player simply by watching games or an outstanding violinist simply by going to concerts to listen to music. The same approach applies to improving skills in mathematics - the only way to become better at it is to challenge oneself and practice it regularly.

Educators and parents are aware of how important Mathematics is for studies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields and are ready to do whatever it takes to support their students and children in achieving their best. What we as parents and educators say and how we say that to our children has the biggest influence in encouraging or discouraging them. 
Parents who tell their children: “I know you are not good at math”, and  “I was terrible at math and you are just like me” foster the mindset that some students are naturally good or bad in Mathematics. However, professor Jo Boaler from Stanford University has research that confirms there is no such thing as “math people” and everyone can learn Mathematics to high levels. She says:

“Many people think that some students can work to high levels and some cannot because of the brains they are born with, but this idea has been resoundingly disproved. Study after study has shown the incredible capacity of brains to grow and change within a remarkably short period of time.”
Research also shows that students who believe in themselves and in their ability to learn are much more likely to persevere and achieve high standards. Professor’s Dweck’s research confirms this as she states: 

“Powerful new evidence points to the importance of the beliefs girls hold about their own potential when they are choosing to opt in or out of STEM subjects. Students with a ‘growth mindset’ who believe that smartness increases with hard work, are those who engage in learning behaviors that produce high achievement.”

Below is a list of things that we as parents and educators could do to help our children achieve their best in Mathematics and perhaps even guide them into further studying one of the STEM subjects:

  • We should believe in their ability to succeed. We should believe that working hard will allow them to improve and achieve the goals they have set.
  • We should be understanding when challenges occur and help them form a growth mindset by suggesting that “perhaps they don’t understand it yet, but we are sure they will”. 
  • We should ask about what they learned in school and how they know it is true, and what connections they made to previous knowledge. 
  • When talking about Mathematics, we should focus on the reasons and thinking, not the final answer. Do not mistake speed for higher ability.
  • We should play board games and do puzzles with our children.

Some of these points are from Prof. Boaler’s advice for parents.

This last point in the list above is one of my favorites. Board games that can be played with 2-year-olds and 18-year-olds are slightly different and increase in complexity, but are nevertheless important. By playing board games, students have a chance to develop number sense, get better at recognizing patterns, thinking logically and practicing problem solving. It is never too late to start and it is also never too early. I encourage you to try it! The Tiny Polka Dot and Qwirkle for little ones and Ticket To Ride and Carcassonne for the whole family are my personal favorites. Let me know if you give these a try or if you have a different favorite that promotes Mathematical thinking.