In this 2008 Science Daily article, Dr. Nadya Fouad tells us that her research (into girls’ interest in math) has produced a startling result.
“The relationship between confidence and interest is close,” says Fouad. “If they feel they can do it, it feeds their interest.”
It’s important to focus on making topics interesting, but some students have a fundamental belief that they can’t “do math,” and convictions like that can be a roadblock to any lasting interest. In my class, I had students who would finally, after days of practicing, be able to perform a new skill – and go right back to saying they can’t do math. It doesn’t help when their classmates all seem to learn every skill way faster, and their teacher has a degree in math and is always showing off at the front of the room. Not that I make a big deal out of estimating square roots with absurd speed and accuracy, or anything. Bee tee dubs, I am world champion at square-root estimating. And at confidence.
How can we teach confidence in our math classes? As I see it, there are two main routes to take:
1: Make it clear that “not knowing” is not “failure.” (yet)
- Ask for wrong answers first. “What’s a number that wouldn’t solve this equation? What number is way too big to be the answer here?”
- Model being wrong in a healthy way. When you make a mistake, say, “whoops, that was a mistake.” Don’t try to hide it or make some excuse – even jokingly. If you find it hard to make a mistake because you’re such a math whiz, you might want to ask students about things they’re expert in. That’s a good idea anyway, and you can show yourself learning and not understanding immediately.
- Something like this post about Painting with Functions lets students play without anything to “know” in the first place. There’s no way to be wrong.
- Be on the look out for risky behavior – a guess, an idea, anything a student offers that he or she is not sure about – and then praise that behavior.
- Never lock a student in to a bad grade. If you have a student with five 0% in a given topic, adjust your grading system so that it won’t take five 100%s just to get to a high F. Some students think your bad grade means you think they’re bad at math, and if you aren’t willing to change that opinion, they’ll give up. (Self-promotional link: ActiveGrade can help you manage an active grading system).
2: Work in contexts in which every student is already fluent.
- Start with something all of the students know – throwing a ball, walking, measuring distance – and ask a question about it. I write a lot about this in my “Bringing the Problem to Reality” series. When students understand the problem enough that they can play with its parameters and watch the outcome, they’ll feel confident experimenting. If they’re using something they don’t know anything about – a new equation, or a new notation – and they don’t even know what they could change, they’ll feel stuck and insecure.
- Ask questions they already know how to answer. It’s OK to spend time on things they already know, even if they don’t “need” to review. You can keep it lively with a game or two. If a student who is usually insecure says he wants to move on because, gosh Riley, he gets it already, make sure to point out his high skill level before you continue.
Teaching young people to be confident and creative is an important part of being an adult. I hope this gives you some specific ideas about how to do it! Leave a comment with your experiences and techniques!