Learning Math Well: Confidence, Competence and Positive Attitude

By: Dr. Pam Moran, Superintendent at Albemarle County Public Schools 

Why do Americans stink at mathematics? Why do from 30-40% of people who respond to attitudinal questions about math use language describing that they “hate”  it? Why do many parents and educators believe that being good at math is about ability, not capability?

using data At a recent school board work session, board members, along with parents, teachers, principals and community professionals, tackled the question of what it takes to educate all young people well in mathematics as they move from pre-kindergarten to graduation. We explored research relevant to learning mathematics, parental and educator attitudes about mathematics, and effective mathematics curricula, assessment and pedagogy. We learned that mathematical performance in higher level courses in high school is a gatekeeper to college, particularly for children living in poverty. We learned that as children age-up in schools, they perceive themselves as less and less capable in math, particularly females. We discussed that regardless of a child’s potential career path, reports abound of mixed performance and lack of confidence among young people in school, more so in mathematics than other curricular areas. Most importantly, we discussed what we need to do to address the concerns we share with our community, including UVA Curry math education professors, engineers, parents and educators about mathematics performance and attitude among our students.

Many people have opinions about the root cause of America’s problem with math. In Albemarle, we are embarking upon a deeper dive into understanding the problem from a research-driven, not opinion-based, perspective.

We believe that:

  • Mathematical concepts, problem-solving skills and procedures are all critical to learning so that all students can apply mathematical thinking in unique situations. We need to make sure that our professionals (from pre-k through post-calculus) develop and hone expertise in math content, assessment and instruction.
  • A vigorous curricula matters. We must make it accessible through sound instruction and resources for all students beginning in our early childhood classrooms and continuing through graduation.
  • Time and effort matter. We must support students through trial and error and expect mastery of mathematics to be the goal, not finishing a unit of study in a specific time.
  • Confidence is important. We adults must behave in ways that help young people build success, see themselves as capable and stay motivated to learn despite the challenging work we put in front of them.
  • Meaningfulness is important. We must create learning connections from math to other disciplines and to the real world so that kids use mathematics in contexts that make sense to them.

Why focus on mathematics?

"Measure Twice - cut once" Every lifelong learning competency that we desire young people to acquire before adulthood represents mathematical thinking, language and skills – in one way or another. Adults use math in homes, community activities, work and play. Mathematical thinking grounds our capability to apply, analyze, evaluate and create across disciplines. As the Dean of UVA Engineering once said to parents contemplating the impact of their child entering our Math, Engineering and Science Academy in Charlottesville, VA: “If your child decides to major in studio art, s/he will be a better artist because of learning basic principles of engineering.”

Not every child we educate will go into a career that demands the use of the most sophisticated of mathematical thinking even though some will do so. However, if we want to open more doors of opportunity and ensure our young people can process a world of math in their daily lives, we have to do better to support their performance, attitude and capability in mathematics.


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That’s why our school board is studying mathematics as a strategic focus. It’s not about test scores, it’s about children becoming confident, competent learners who actually like math.


This post was originally published at Superintendent's Blog: News and Information from Dr. Pam Moran

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