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Confidence, Competence, Comprehension: How we bring mathematics to life for our boys


Confidence, Competence, Comprehension: How we bring mathematics to life for our boys

“I still remember the realization in college at Flinders University in Australia that mathematics was not just an abstract game of symbols but could be used as a tool to analyze and understand the modern world.’ - Terence Tao


Terence Tao, is a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Los Angeles and he is regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians.

Within his quote lies a key to how we approach teaching mathematics at Sterling Hall and how our teachers help boys overcome the very real issue of mathemaphobia otherwise known as mathematics anxiety – feelings of fear, avoidance and dread when dealing with any situation relating to mathematics.

We invited two of our teachers to share their insights and approach in this post. Ms. Cat Gallienne teaches K to Grade 3 while Mr. Tyler Meakin works with our Grade 6 boys. Both are terrific teachers who have been instrumental in bringing the world of math to life…real life. In fact ‘real’ is a key notion to think about when we address issues of confidence, competence and comprehension in mathematics.

If you can, think back to your very earliest days in school. How was math and arithmetic introduced to you? Was it blackboards filled with sums and symbols that were more mysterious than a foreign language?

“Our first job is to make these studies relevant to a child’s day-to-day life. So we find personal connections to the concepts and practices. And, we introduce an element of fun,” says Ms. Gallienne. “For example, using number ‘bonds’ to aid them in learning what combinations of numbers can be used to total 12 (1+11, 2+10, 8+4).  Or we ask them to take on a practical exercise such as sharing pencils and counting how many each of them has and how many they have shared. Boys like hands-on experiences and at the youngest ages giving them a route to early success through fun provides a great start.”

Ms. Gallienne relates that the introduction of mathematics to youngsters is made effective through concrete, pictorial and abstract approaches. 

“To help them grasp ideas such as equations and symbols we also involve things which happen at the school like pizza day,” she goes on. “Get them to think about how many pizzas we need to make sure that each boy gets two pieces.”

Clearly, you can’t go wrong with boys and pizzas!

Mr. Meakin builds on the foundational learning of the younger years programming by acknowledging his own challenging journey to a love of math. “I will admit that I had a degree of math anxiety and my initial experiences with the study weren’t great.

“Being open about this helps me establish a humanized relationship with the boys and the subject matter,” he continues. “Connecting with the boys is so critical and meeting them where they are is key. Some of the boys grasp math at a high level, some clearly struggle and then there’s a considerable middle ground of boys who have fundamental capabilities. My job is to provide avenues for each group to find success through relational learning, reinforcing skills and bringing relevance to math.”

For both teachers they recognize that early successes will build confidence. The entry point to success can be through the use of various techniques including sports analogies. Do you want a player on your fantasy team who has a high ratio of goals to ice time? Sounds about right so how do you figure that out?

“I have had real success with tech tools as well,” reports Mr. Meakin. “I use a Flipped Classroom approach. In this model of instruction, students watch lessons I pre record for homework and complete their assignments, labs, and tests in class. Use of the videos then allows me to spend more time with in-class support for those who need it. It is the interaction and the meaningful learning activities that occur during face-to-face time that is most important.”

For Ms. Gallienne she embraces how the school’s commitment to Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is especially important when teaching mathematics. “The SEL program provides strategies to manage stress and helps students build self-regulation skills. It seems obvious that all can learn more effectively when we’re open to learning.”

We asked the teachers to offer one tip to parents that will support a better environment for learning math. Their tip is simple…be aware of how you talk about math. It is critical to model a positive attitude and even if you personally struggle with mathemaphobia help your boys understand how math is genuinely relevant to everyday real life.

“It’s important for all of us to have a growth mindset,” concluded Ms. Gallienne. “We probably don’t have time right now to explore this fully but I recommend that parents follow this link to gain some insight from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. They have some very practical advice and exercises to help your boy build a mathematical mindset!”

We can all help our boys overcome mathemaphobia and sometimes we all have to approach the study with a good sense of humour. After all, as the comedian Steven Wright observed, “Five out of four people have trouble with fractions.”

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