Nicola Bailey-Bennett laughs when she thinks about how her career unfolded. She says she never thought she would end up teaching Grade 8 math.
Bailey-Bennett originally set out to be an accountant, but didn’t realize how comfortable she’d have to be with numbers. While in university – in her home country, Jamaica – she needed to pass a statistics class in her first year.
She failed the course three times.
Bailey-Bennett says she felt embarrassed, which stemmed from a feeling of intimidation, that she remembers starting in elementary school. Her teachers would stand at the front of the room and explain a method and then have students practice it, alone. The practice rarely resonated.
Unknowingly, she had closed her mind to the subject.
Nicola’s story is not shocking for Jo Boaler.
Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She has dedicated her career to conducting research and sharing knowledge about best practices for teaching mathematics.
Boaler said it starts with educators having the right mindset.
“I think… many of the teachers themselves are somewhat math traumatized,” she said. “It’s really important to shift that thinking amongst teachers because if they think they can’t learn math, they pass that along to kids.”
She explains that educators can be passing along their mindset without knowing it.
Opening your mind to the subject starts with approaching numbers flexibly and embracing a deeper conceptual understanding of the subject, rather than memorizing number facts and procedures.
Boaler knows that many educators teach math the way they were taught. They use timed tests and call for students to memorize number facts, like the multiplication table. She says these traditional methods are extremely damaging and distorts the subject.
“It’s ironic. We don’t need kids to be fast with numbers. Mathematicians are some of the slowest math thinkers I know,” Boaler said. “The top employers are standing up and saying ‘We don’t need that from kids. We’re using computers for that part of math. What we want is for kids to think broadly… about problem-solving.’”
Boaler explained that math facts are still important, but students should learn them by being able to use them flexibly. One way of doing this is by allowing them to be creative when solving a simple multiplication problem. There are many ways to figure out the answer to a question like 18 times 5.
This is one of many examples she outlines on her website youcubed.org, which provides educators with specific activities to help develop number facts and number sense.
“We know the encouragement of blind memorization works against number sense because it gives kids the idea that that’s what math is,” said Boaler. “Knowing number facts is a tiny piece of the breadth of mathematics… but it’s hugely overemphasized in the early years of school.”
Boaler added that math anxiety is documented in students as young as 5 years old, but wouldn’t be surprised if it starts even earlier.
Nora Newcombe wasn’t one to be intimidated by the subject. She always enjoyed mathematics as she worked her way through Ontario’s education system as a teenager.
Now she’s a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and believes psychology has a central role in mathematics and that it “contributes to the understanding of the intuitive basis for math learning.”
Through her work, she is aware that math anxiety is present in many people of all ages, who are not prone to being anxious about other aspects of life.
Newcombe says unlike typical cases of anxiety, when people suffer from math anxiety, there’s commonly no desire to find a solution.
She compares the way society views literacy versus mathematics and thinks it’s odd that people don’t seem bothered to live with a fear of numbers.
Most of Newcombe’s research is about spatial thinking and specifically its relationship with science and math.
Newcombe says that mathematics is a deeply spatial subject and that developing students’ spatial ability should be a priority. She explains that sometimes, especially in secondary school, educators are presenting “too much content in a finite number of class periods.”
She thinks teachers shouldn’t be afraid to incorporate things like mapping in mathematics since it allows students to develop their spatial ability and aligns with the curriculum through aspects like fractions and number lines. Newcombe believes these activities will help students stay engaged.
Matthew Oldridge remembers the moment that math “exploded” in his classroom.
He has been teaching mathematics in Ontario for more than 10 years and noticed a difference as soon as he started giving his students a voice.
“Math is a talking subject. When I pulled back on the teacher talk and let students talk more… it became more interesting. It became fun.”
He explained that each student’s unique way of problem-solving started to come through and their work became individualized as they started to see themselves in what they were doing.
Oldridge says students suffer in silence too often with mathematics, in an “unbroken cycle of struggle.” It’s fostered by traditional assessment methods, like tests at the end of each unit. By the time it’s marked and handed back to the student, they are already in the middle of the next unit. If there was something in the previous unit that they didn’t understand, it’s easier for them to ignore.
The assessment triangle in the Ministry of Ontario’s Growing Success document encourages educators to look at conversations, observations and products, but Oldridge says conversations and observations are typically undervalued.
Oldridge adds that educators should be looking for their students to truly understand numeracy. “Being a numerate person means thinking critically and creatively with the numbers and data and information that’s all around us,” he said.
Connie Quadrini agrees with Oldridge when it comes to assessment practices and strongly believes that educators should focus on observations and student conversations. Quadrini adds that it will also make a huge difference when it comes to evaluating students with learning disabilities.
Quadrini, a provincial mathematics lead and the York Catholic District School Board’s mathematics consultant, says educators need to know their students’ profiles.
“We need to understand… what their strengths are and how we can leverage those strengths,” she said. “It’s the interaction between the mathematics and their profile that’s allowing us to support those students and help move their learning forward.”
To understand the profile of students with mobility issues, Quadrini creates learning environments for educators to experience what it would be like if the roles were reversed.
For instance, Quadrini will help teachers understand what it’s like for a student with mobility issues to take notes during class by putting up a slide and explaining a math procedure. She asks the educators to copy the information on the slide with their non-dominant writing hand as Quadrini delivers the explanation. At the end of the session, educators typically miss the lesson because they were focusing on their writing or vice versa.
“We [have to] try to experience mathematics in a different way than we learned it,” she said. “The simulation seems to be the one thing that breaks the door open.”
Quadrini explains that educators are typically shocked when they realize how their students may be feeling. This goes for all students – not just those with disabilities.
Moving forward, she believes student achievement will increase as long as educators are continually supported in developing their mathematics instruction plans and assessment methods.
Now, Bailey-Bennett has been teaching mathematics in the Peel District School Board for five years and says “it’s the best thing that could’ve happened” to her.
Bailey-Bennett has changed her mindset about mathematics by unpacking the math and by attending professional development sessions that highlight research done by experts like Jo Boaler.
She says she wants to use her story to help others realize their potential in mathematics.
This multimedia project was developed by
with funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Education