The late mathematician William Thurston said, “mathematics is not about numbers, equations, computations or algorithms; it is about understanding.”
Our changing world – one of digitization, automatization and globalization – underscores math’s influence. Math is omnipresent yet often hiding in plain sight, making it difficult for students to see its role in our everyday lives, including video games, software, music, sports and more.
Far too many students see math as boring, difficult or irrelevant. As a result, students identify either as those who can or cannot do math. We need students to see math less like a task or destination, but more as a journey to higher learning and understanding.
This means doing a better job of illustrating math’s value and utility to students and parents alike. It includes integrating more real world and practical applications into coursework, making sure students understand what classes will satisfy diploma and college admission requirements, sharing information about jobs requiring math, and challenging students to take four years of high school math.
A federal study found that access to academically challenging coursework in high school significantly increased the likelihood of a student successfully completing a bachelor’s degree. In fact, it found that access to and enrollment in these more demanding math classes had a greater impact than income level and parent’s education.
Studies have also shown that students who take advanced math in high school have higher wages and are less likely to be unemployed. Math skills are increasingly in demand by employers, yet many jobs go unfilled because of the lack of qualified applicants. We can do something about that.
This is not about requiring every student to take Calculus; it is about preparing them to seek higher level math courses to achieve broader cognitive abilities. This means expanding the number, levels and variety of courses available to students. We also need to combat the myth that good math skills are inherently genetic. Math is a byproduct of preparation, hard work and resiliency – the sum of what we put into it.
The formula for success starts at home with parental attitudes towards math. Children often are unable to see and understand the value of math in the future, but parents can help. It continues with ongoing job embedded professional development of teachers focusing on foundational learning in elementary/middle school that incorporates interactive pedagogies that prepare students at the high school level for advanced math courses. It also requires identifying students needing extra support as early as possible to ensure that mathematics learning does not suffer.
We need to support students in developing what author and Stanford professor Carol Dweck has coined the “growth mindset” towards mathematics – the belief that one can keep learning and get good at something with effort and hard work. Students can develop their math skills, comfort and understanding over time with practice and effort. We need them to focus on “productive struggle” to problem-solve, persevere and learn. It goes beyond getting the right answer. Without context and a deep understanding, the right answer will not mean anything to the learner.
This is why we’ve shifted instructional practices towards the exploration and discussion of strategies – the process for reaching a particular answer. “Good” mistakes can lead students to “great” math learning – allowing for Thurston’s sense of understanding in addition to the opportunity to hone skills spanning many careers – analysis, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communication.
As the Board of Regents reviews the state’s high school graduation requirements, it is an opportune time to look at whether students would benefit from more than three units of math. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia require four math credits.