What Does it Mean to be “Good at Math”?

You’ve all probably heard it. Students enter your classroom with a preconceived notion of themselves and their peers. “I’m not good at math because [blank]…” But what does that mean? What does it mean to be “good at math”? Students often relate their math ability with the red markings on their paper, and the letter grade on the top. But what if they started evaluating their math ability on their willingness to make mistakes, take risks, experiment, use trail and error, problem solve and ultimately, engage with persistent, productive struggle. In order to help students discuss and investigate this question, I engaged them in the Spaghetti Challenge. The Spaghetti Challenge is an activity where students are given 20 raw spaghetti noodles, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string and a marshmallow. They are given 18 minutes to build the tallest free-standing structure that will hold the whole marshmallow.

After the students participated in this activity, I debriefed students with the Ted Talk Build a Tower, Build a Team by Tom Wujec. During this Ted Talk, I stopped the video for discussion. The first time I stopped it was to ask students why they thought kindergartners consistently create taller towers, and I got a lot of responses like, “They are more creative,” and “They aren’t afraid to make mistakes.” I emphasized that the people who did poorly thought there was one right answer and poured all of their energy into that, and in the end, it didn’t work. We related that to math by connecting it to multiple representations of a problem, and the different ways students approach and attack a problem. The video does an excellent job of showing this with a visual when it talks about how kindergartners prototype, so I highly recommend having a discussion about this image if you choose to do this in your classroom. We also talked about how when you make a mistake, your brain grows from it. I stopped at a couple discussion points along the way just to look at data and to clarify some things, but ended with a discussion with a powerful quote from the video, “Every problem has its own marshmallow.” At this point, the video shows a picture of several inventions. I told my students that I have never seen a more accurate representation of what math is. They were slightly confused until I told them that these things were invented because there was a problem, and inventors found a solution. I asked them if they thought math was involved in that process. I asked them if they thought the inventor ever made a mistake or failed along the way, and finally, I asked them if they thought the inventor did it alone, or collaborated. We had a great conversation, and I had kids who hate math, who struggle and shut down often open up during this challenge and conversation. Together, we came up with the following responses to the question, “What does it mean to be ‘good at Math’?”

Mistakes, collaboration, problem solving, guess and check, persistent, experiment, resourceful, and refine. 

My favorite success story from this activity was with a seventh-grade student, Lisa (name changed for confidentiality). Lisa was convinced that she was terrible at math, and was very closed minded about her ability. Her team not only won the Spaghetti Challenge, but finished about 8 minutes early. I was starting to debrief with the class when Lisa asked me, “Why did we do this?” I pointed to the bulletin board and said, “To answer the question, What does it mean to be good at math?” She said, “Well I suck at math.” I said, “I think I just proved you wrong. Have an open mind today while we discuss, and see if I can convince you otherwise.” She was very engaged in our class discussion. Though she remains slightly resistant, her attitude in class has completely changed since. She is engaged, doing her work with her team and even doing her homework. Part of this I think is because she realized that I won’t give up on her, but also I think winning the challenge really resonated with her. She told me she wants to invent something now.

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