Understanding math is the first step to learning math

Simple things like letting kids work together can help their math abilities.

Pop quiz: Are you good at math? Are your kids?

Answer: Yes.

The only problem is most of people just don't know it. But I know someone who can explain why you're actually good at math.

Big name, big concept

Stanford University's Jo Boaler is a rock star in the math world. When she came to talk to our math teachers in August, you would have thought Bruce Springsteen had just landed at one of our schools. There were whispers of “There she is!” and school teachers lined up to get selfies with the mathematician.

And now she's coming to talk to our families. Boaler has a lot to say about learning math and you won't want to miss it.

Contrary to popular belief, there is a massive body of research that indicates math is not about memorization or learning lots of rules. There is no such thing as “math people” or “nonmath people.”

A growth mindset

You probably won't calculate a rocket launch tomorrow, but if you spend a Saturday afternoon at a county fair trying to throw a pingpong ball into a small, faraway bucket, you're doing the same thing. Turning that throw into an equation is just the next step.

Now, imagine you've picked up that pingpong ball for the first time. You throw. You miss. Do you give up if you know you have four more tries to get the prize? Most likely you'd adjust your throw on the next try.

This is what call Boaler and other education experts will tell you is a “growth mindset.” It's a fancy way to describe that students (and their teachers and parents) need to understand that intelligence is developed — it's not something you simply have or don't have. If kids focus on how they are improving instead of worrying about how smart they are, they work harder to learn more.

Why this matters right now

Bringing a rock-star education professor to our schools this week is not a coincidence. Boaler's research follows the principles of our new core curriculum, which aligns with the Common Core State Standards.

What this means is, we will be giving students more time to dive into math concepts so they really understand them. Instead of asking kids to rush for the right answer, we will be asking them to make sense of the concept. We will be helping them connect important mathematical concepts from problem to problem and course to course so that math doesn't feel like a bunch of isolated rules. We will ask them to keep trying when they tackle open-ended problems.

Let them think about it together!

And we will let students do this together in groups instead of in isolation. While sometimes working alone is called for, classrooms where students collaborate on open-ended math tasks are good for every student.

Richard A. Carranza is the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

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