Healing the stigma and learning from old wounds

Mathematical ability is not a genetic gift and it can be polished in a classroom by taking an engaging teaching approach. Starting with this position, Neil ponders on how adapting a more conscious way of teaching can help fight the stigma associated with mathematics and turn the learning process into a rewarding one.

Illustration by Neil Mellet

Try the following thought experiment: You have a group of people with you (pupils, colleagues, family members, whoever . . . ) and you ask them to bring to mind an image of a mathematician. What would be the first image that appears to them?

  • How many people would have imagined a male?
  • What would have been the most common ethnicity of the imaginary mathematician?
  • What proportion of the images would have been images that people aspire to emulate?
  • How many people would have imagined a person doing work on their own?
  • What sort of hairstyle would s/he have had? (Yes, I am serious . . .)

Unfortunately, the overwhelming set of images that children have in this situation are likely not to be the types of role models that we would like them to develop. It is possible that these images develop as a result of their contact with mathematics. For most of them, the only contact that they have with the subject is in a mathematics classroom. Let us discuss the ways in which we can adjust how we teach the subject to prevent the development of these negative images and experiences.

So, let’s of the concept of a stigma. Firstly, the wounds and marks inflicted on Jesus and secondly, the place at the heart of a flower where fertilisation and the start of fresh, new life occurs. Is it possible to change the mathematical scars (and in many cases suppurating wounds) that so many bear, into something creative and vibrant and beautiful?

In today’s world we have powerful arguments that allow us a chance to turn into beautiful flowering ideas. One of the most powerful of these sets of arguments comes from the recent and ongoing research into how the brain functions. Neuroscience has given us the following information and we could be directly teaching those in our care about these ideas, hopefully helping to fertilise their relationship with the subject:

  • There is no such thing as a mathematics gene that is inherited by one person and not by another. In short there is no such thing as a mathematical or non-mathematical baby.
  • The brain can grow at any age with appropriate activities and shows great plasticity, as was shown in studies involving taxi drivers in London.
  • The brain thrives on making mistakes and struggling – in fact neuroscientists show that a person who struggles with a problem and gets it wrong will have greater neural pathway development than someone who struggles with the same problem and gets it correct.
  • The brain develops better when a person thinks about a problem using different visual representations, rather than just using a single strategy. This engages different sections of the brain, allowing long-lasting connections to be established.

The work of summarises the state of current neuroscience with regard to mathematics education.

So, what are some things that I can consider as a teacher to help to break down this cloud of stigma that enshrouds a beautiful subject, removing from so many the ability to see its beauty?

  1. Time for reflection: Do I build into my lessons time to teach and use metacognitive strategies? Do I allow time for students to reflect on what they have learned, how they have learned, and why they should be bothering to learn it at all?
  2. Teach the importance of mindset: Do I help learners to understand that when they operate from a fixed mindset (in simple terms that intelligence is a gift at birth and cannot be changed) they are less likely to risk making mistakes and will thus stagnate? Do my actions encourage them to adopt a growth mindset? Do I realise that the child’s judgement of whether or not they will be able to solve a problem is more important than their knowledge of various tricks and techniques? Do I thus help them towards this idea of self-efficacy?
  3. Stories of history: Do I tell stories of the history of my subject and share mathematical role models of people from a diversity of backgrounds, ages, genders, etc.?
  4. Stories of struggle: Do I know that it is even more successful to tell stories of mathematicians who struggled against the odds or against stereotypes, emerging to find a life in mathematics?
  5. Offer beautiful mathematical learning opportunities: Do I reflect on what the child learned in my lesson today? Was the mathematics dry and drill-based, did it have fixed answers, did it have a connection to the world? Because more than the mathematical technique I tried to teach, the way I taught it is the lesson they learned and may have been precisely one of the lessons that stigmatises my subject.
  6. Embrace the power of multiplicity: Aligned with the previous idea, do I encourage pupils to approach the same question in many different ways? Do I encourage them to spend a long time on one problem, seeing it in multiple different representations, maybe as a table, as an equation, as a picture, as a graph? Do I come back to the same mathematical idea from a completely different angle in later lessons, using a different context to arrive in the same space?
  7. Believe in the child entrusted to my care: Do I honestly see the worth and potential of every child in my class, knowing that they have the ability to study mathematics to a high level? Do I understand that it is my job to find the trigger that will counter the loads of stigma in his/her mind?
  8. Believe in myself, that I am the reason that learning happens: Do I know that the students really do want to learn from me, and that I am effective in teaching, but that I need to be very careful about what lessons I am actually teaching them?

It is time. We have no more excuses. Let’s heed the call to action to fertilise and bring rebirth and regeneration to old wounds.

Neil Eddy

Mathematics Teacher

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