Math is like…

The main goal of my research team this year is to encourage students to redefine who they are as mathematicians in order to increase their enjoyment while doing mathematics. Enjoyment, we have found, is a difficult thing to measure. One of the strategies to measure enjoyment we have tried is to ask our students to respond to weekly journal prompts.

Most Fridays this school year, I started class with a journal prompt and a chance for students to reflect on who they are relative to their math learning. Here is a list of some of the journal prompts I have used so far in class:

  1. What have you enjoyed most about your start to learning math this year?   
  2. What are you most worried about going into this year?
  3. What is something you do really well?    What is something you would like to improve upon?
  4. What math skill do you feel like you understand better after this week?  What skill do you need to keep working on to understand?
  5. One mathematics activity I really enjoy is _____________ because__________________.
  6. For me, math is like_________________________________. (I saw this prompt in a math teacher Facebook group I am part of and gave students the following example: For me, math is like a roller coaster.  A little bit scary sometimes, but once you jump in and try it, very exciting!
  7. What can you do that you could not do a year ago?

With prompt #5, I had some great responses that got me thinking. Here a few worth sharing:

One thing I found very interesting about these responses is how many of my Algebra students – who seem like they enjoy the class – made it seem in their journal responses like math is just another school subject they need to do.  It made me realize that some students value being successful even though it may not be something they enjoy.

This realization has me thinking about the idea of enjoyment on a different level. Does enjoyment mean “fun?” Does it need to be tied to fun or can students (and teachers for that matter) find enjoyment in “success?”

I did this same journal prompt with all of my classes, so I will have no other group to try it with until next year, but a member of our leadership team made me question whether or not the example I provided prompted students to focus on math being scary. When using this prompt in the future, I will try giving it without an example or using an example that focuses on math being calm or fun and see if/how that changes the responses.

This prompt has really gotten my wheels turning and made me realize that finding joy in math is something that is nice. Though I want my students to experience joy, I realize that it is not a necessity for students to find success in math class. I am curious to learn what other teachers have done to help their students find joy/success in math class. Have you found these to be separate (or connected) experiences? Please comment and let me know what you think.

One comment on “Math is like…

  1. Jo Boaler wrote a paper with Jim Greeno in 2000 describing how affect is related to the authored mathematical identities of students. Their participants were successful students in an upper-level mathematics course. In other words, all the students in this study were successful in math but they didn’t all like math.

    They found that students CAN like math in didactic classes. Students in didactic classes who did like math in these classes liked it precisely because they liked being receivers of knowledge, they liked right/wrong binaries, and the lack of opinions / creativity / expression.

    On the other hand, many of these successful students didn’t like math because they disliked those exact same features of didactic classes: “When students talked about their rejection of mathematics, their reasons went beyond cognitive likes and dislikes, to the establishment of their identities.” This was especially the result for students who saw themselves as verbal and creative.

    When this is considered alongside some of Boaler’s other findings from that time — that students who learn math in didactic situations find it difficult to use mathematics in new and varied situations — it seems important that we design instruction so that those verbal and creative kids can grow to love math. It is even good for the kids that prefer more didactic lessons.

    I am one of those people that (in high school) didn’t like math but liked being good at it. My math experiences were all extremely didactic. It wasn’t until college that I fell in love with math. I had an awesome professor who helped me see mathematics as connected and sensible (even extraordinarily so!) by designing his courses to be inquiry-based. I struggled more in his course than I had ever struggled before because no one handed me anything, but I started to love mathematics :).

Leave a Reply