Lessons Decades in the Learning

I was always good at math… that is, until I wasn’t. This happened quite literally overnight as I entered my first day of 8th grade. I had rounded out 7th grade math with an A and a great deal of confidence about my final year of elementary school. On that first day of 8th grade, though, I found out that I was not going to be in the next class up – 8th grade math. I was going to skip that and Pre-Algebra, and head straight into Algebra I. By the end of the period, I was hopelessly lost. We had spent the period “reviewing” material that was completely foreign. Powers? Factoring? Exponents? Squaring? Where did these letters in my math come from???

I wish I could say that these gaps in my understanding were quickly filled through hard work and the help of a dedicated teacher – and she was dedicated and attentive and caring and supportive. However, none of those qualities helped me to overcome a 2-year gap in my education. She knew it devastated me each time she handed back quizzes with 36% marked on it. She knew I was frustrated – she even had a nightmare that I committed suicide because of that class. She knew I was working hard but learning very little. At the end of the year, she placed an A on my report card – an A I knew I had not earned – and I was passed on to take Honors Geometry my freshman year.

Freshman year passed similarly: I earned an undeserved A and was promoted to Honors Algebra II, which I completed, also with an A and a lack of understanding.

In those years, I recall a moment that felt like a huge breakthrough: a kind and helpful classmate, Inés, was explaining a homework assignment that I had missed because I had been ill. It was on factoring. For three years, I had been randomly placing letters and numbers in parentheses – the extent of my understanding. In about 15 minutes of time, she taught me what an exponent was; she had identified a critical gap in my foundational understanding and she targeted that concept. In that moment, so many other concepts fell into place. Was I suddenly a mathematical genius? No. Did that one chunk of understanding help? Somewhat. Did I deserve the A that was again on my report card at the end of the year? That’s laughable. Adults around me knew I was struggling and were kind and supportive. However, there was no money for a tutor, and this was long before I could have checked out some free online tutorials. After my sophomore year, I ended my adolescent study of mathematics, having fulfilled the requirements for graduation and entry into college as an English major.

I spent those years and the decades after sincerely convinced that I was simply bad at math. That was what I had learned in those three years. Later, I would even say to my own students things like, “Ohhhh, math. Yeah, you don’t want me to help you with that – I am not good at math” or “I’m not a math person.” From a strictly fixed mindset, I felt strongly that I was bad at math and always would be. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that I had not learned certain concepts upon which others were reliant and that that was the source of my lack of understanding. I figured that I had dodged a bullet in those earlier classes, and I would never need to do academic forms of math ever again. Even when acknowledging intellectually the importance of having a growth mindset – and encouraging that in my students – it never crossed my mind that I was looking at my past with math in a fixed manner.

And then Research Methodology happened, and I needed to understand things like ANOVA and ANCOVA and why they were important in research. This was even beyond just plugging in numbers into a set formula – this required a deep conceptual understanding. At first, I was overwhelmed. I even posted up a despondent message on Facebook.

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I was shocked by the responses of support, but even more than that: there were offers of help! One of my former students – a 4th year medical student – even offered to tutor his former English teacher. Knowing that support was out there if I needed it, I decided to take to the Internet to find online tutorials. Later that day, I called my mother-in-law – an elementary math teacher – and we talked on the phone about the principles I was struggling with. She soon told me that the subject was beyond her own experience, but that I was welcome to keep talking it through with her. And as we talked, and I did some further Google searches for clarification of definitions while consulting my textbook, things started to fall into place.

It was then that I realized that I wasn’t lacking an ability to do math; I was missing an understanding of certain concepts. As I worked through those that I needed for Research Methodology, I slowly gained the understanding I needed and, even more important to me, a shift in perspective. Through this, I have realized that I personally learn best when able to bounce ideas off of others who are open-minded and supportive. In addition, I have learned the true value of a growth mindset, as well as the importance of being open to learning difficult skills. As a student, these allowed me to grow exponentially (ha!) in a short period of time. I still have gaps, but I was so very proud of the growth I made!

As a teacher, though, these lessons will be even more beneficial. I see clearly that “giving” an undeserved grade does not help to reassure a student; in fact, it can discourage true growth. Also, while I’ve always acknowledged my own struggles in learning regarding math, I have found already that my own students are responding very positively to my new attitude about how I now approach those obstacles. This is both encouraging them to persevere through areas of difficulty and to seek out help – whether online or in person – when they find they cannot master the skill alone.

In the end, although these were lessons it took me years to learn, I feel tremendously rewarded by the mathematical knowledge I have gained, but even more by the way I now look at learning challenging concepts.


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