I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from students. I guess I was lucky. Growing up, nobody ever told me that I wasn’t good at math (or anything else, really). More importantly, nobody ever made it okay for me not to be good at math, or school, or whatever I was interested in learning about. But not all of my students have the family support that I did (and continue to have). So part of nurturing their talent falls to me. I’ve always told my students that I want them to be fearless problem solvers – to face life unafraid of what lies ahead. To nurture this I have to allow space within my classroom for some of the “messy stuff” like playing around with patterns and numbers, wondering about data and statistics, or building seemingly impossible 3D geometric structures. And then pointing out how they just did math – and they were good at it.
You see, when my students say, “I’m not good at math,” they really mean, “I’m not good at quickly recalling math facts when I think everyone is looking at me and waiting for me to respond in some brilliant way.” They equate math with arithmetic and math facts and speed. I try to point out the difference between math and arithmetic (math facts), which sometimes helps. I tell them how bad I am at subtracting numbers quickly in my head.
So what do I do to develop fearless problem solvers? I pose a problem for my students to solve. Then I step back. I observe. I listen. I ask questions. I make them all think before anyone is allowed to speak. I make them talk to me about what they’re thinking and I make them talk to each other, especially to each other. That way I get to listen more. I practice wait time, sometimes for awkwardly long, silent moments. Eventually, I no longer hear, “I’m not good at math.” Except when they want to compute something quickly, on the spot, in the moment, and it isn’t working. And then they turn and say, “Sorry, arithmetic.”