Monday, September 21, 2015

"What three words come to mind when you think of school math?"

This post is a duplicate of a post I made to my classroom blog.

In a survey at the beginning of the year, I asked my 125 Math 6 students to tell me what three words came to mind when they thought of school math. Almost everyone answered, and this Wordle, which I also shared at Back to School Night, shows all the words that were listed by two or more people. The larger a word, the more students listed it. (The colors are random.)

To my teacher mind, some of these words describe associations I'm pleased to see incoming sixth graders having with math, some are merely neutral or factual, and some are associations I hope will change. I'd class them like this (listing the words in each category in order of frequency):

Positive (8): fun, challenging, interesting, learning, challenge, exciting, yay, smart
Neutral/Unclear (22): hard, multiplication, numbers, difficult, homework, easy, complicated, addition, subtraction, division, fractions, shapes, adding, equations, algebra, practice, math, complex, school, long, work, ok
Negative (9): boring, confusing, ugh, scary, irritating, annoying, weird, meh, stressful

I think it's great for students to find math challenging, as long as they're not discouraged, so I put "challenging" and "challenge" into the positive category. But I'm actually uncertain whether to classify "hard" and "difficult" as neutral or negative. Hard work can be intensely satisfying and can lead to great learning, but when "hard" is one of the three primary associations eleven- and twelve-year-olds have with math, well, I worry that they're feeling overwhelmed. At the other extreme, "easy" can be OK if it is a word used by a happy and confident student, but it might also be contributing to why "boring" appears so many times, so it reminds me I need to provide challenges in math class for all kids.

By the end of the year, I'm hoping "fun" and "challenging" replace both "hard" and "easy," and that the rest of the negative words are wiped out!

As for the students' description of the subject matter of math, arithmetic looms large, which is not unexpected for students coming out of elementary school. I do find it interesting that many mathematicians describe math as the study of patterns, yet not one student listed that word, even though they've undoubtedly looked many times at patterns in math class. Could it be that they believe "real" math is the symbols and arithmetic, not the patterns and relationships? If so, I'd like to change that so their view of math is more expansive.

Finally, I would love to see the word USEFUL showing up by the end of the year. Middle school math is arguably the most useful math students learn, but I hope they will realize how powerful it is now, not just later in life.