The observations reassured me that my research had validity. My informal interviews solidified this believe. The group interview gave me some new perspectives from today’s students and hinted at the what I would discover after thoroughly analyzing the rest of the data. The biggest surprise and probably the most important finding to come out of the entire research process came from what I didn’t find in the questionnaire answers and what I did see.
At TPA, I was surprised by how many of my “high achieving” students still had an underlying belief math is hard. A few believed they didn’t have the ability to do math. I was encouraged by how many realized putting effort into something was both necessary and satisfying. I had answered my question that math stigmas still existed, but the why remained.
At first, no one was writing anything. I watched from a distance. Most read it and walked on. I tried a couple of different high traffic areas with the same results. It wasn’t until the first brave soul wrote a response on the board that more stepped up to share. By that time many families had already left for the day. Several of the parents felt heavily compelled to seek me out and explain their math trauma stories, but didn’t want to pen it. It was almost therapeutic in that the subject was finally broached. I’m saddened by how many adults have these trauma stories about math and have learned to either discount its usefulness or resign themselves that they just aren’t able to learn math.
I wondered how different the response to the exercise would be if done in a different setting: an English class, a public-school campus, a public space like the local coffee shop or mall. Am I skewing the data? Is the question and answers worth researching more? Should I gather data on a different question like, “Do you believe some people are able to do math and some are not?’?
The answers helped me see why people feel math is hard. Feeling like something is insurmountable would cause aversion of that subject when forced to address it like in a classroom. What the exercises did show me was that more research was warranted to understand why I was getting these responses. My guess was there would be three main roots: classroom environment, curriculum, home life (how much importance is math given from the student’s family). See the end of this article for all responses to the observations.
Things I suspected and was confirmed in the interview:
Solid instruction is a must. Both the teacher and the curriculum must work together to create a positive learning environment for the students. Manipulatives and graphic organizers help make abstract concepts more concrete and attainable. Making it more engaging (more fun) helps the student realize they want to learn this new concept. Getting the students to try and believe they can do it, has always been my biggest challenge in teaching math. Once they have the right mindset, they take off on their own. I knew connecting math to real world problems and differentiating learning was important to learning. I didn’t realize how aware the students are that this is so important to them. Having information relevant and taught in a variety of different ways was a common theme throughout. Having a positive classroom atmosphere was touch on by all the interviewees.
An underlying theme was that if someone believed they could do math, the student themselves believed it and learned faster than when they felt scrutinized or misunderstood.
New revelations regarding math attitudes and what affects them:
Elementary teachers may be overworked and under equipped to cover early math concepts. I suspect this isn’t just a matter of them not understanding math, but not having time to research how to teach one of the many subjects they have to cover in one day in a way that reflects well on the state test.
I was impressed by the strong reaction of everyone in the room when student Z brought up that it’s all about the relationship between the student and the teacher. They want to be able to trust and count on their teacher. Z also brought up the issue of learning difference and how the struggle taints your attitude towards that subject.
My favorite was when Z pointed out to me is that math seems infinite and increasingly complex. It’s intimidating even though math has always been one of her favorite subjects. This has me thinking of ways to make math less of a scary black hole of vast knowledge and more of a tool to use for everyday life. I started some research into a site that has activities that go with movie clips of people at their jobs solving problems. I’m wondering if that might be a turning point for some students; to see math is more than an endless list of concepts to learn, but a tool for everyday life. See the full transcript after the observation responses.
With the initial questionnaire, I was happy so many students are not buying into the concept math is too hard to learn or not worth their time. I was a little puzzled by how some thought math wasn’t necessary, too hard for some people to ever learn, or they (or a family member) believed they couldn’t get a good grade in math.
I anticipated a bigger change between the first questionnaire and the second. There were no significant differences. I thought of two explanations. Either there had not been enough time for the classroom environment I had so meticulously constructed and the instruction I have spent years fine tuning to magically transform their attitudes into loving math and seeing its vast potential or something else was going on. I hit the books researching more when I remembered a book my friend and fellow teacher had given me that was collecting dust on my desk; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. What if what I was doing wasn’t making a significant difference? Sure, all that effort made a more pleasant environment for all, but it wasn’t quantifiable. What if the biggest difference was more about the mindset of the student? I decided to do what I love: make a spreadsheet about it.
To transpose the information, I assigned the responses numbers. For the first section, O = no response, 1 = a negative attitude, 2 = neutral, and 3 = a positive attitude. The last section were assigned: 0 = no response, 1 = least desirable through 4 = most desirable. I then categorized the questions as asking about Learning Environment, Mindset (four were about growth mindset in particular), and Curriculum & Instruction. I had one response that was so different from the others, I recorded it as a outlier but did not include it in the overall comparisons. I made note of which responses were new students and which I had taught last year.
I then deconstructed the list into the various categories to compare and contrast. Years of questions and searching, months of researching got compiled into a bombshell of a graph. The only thing that could make the results better would be to correlate grades with each student’s response and get a bigger sampling size that reached beyond just my classroom.
Tying the results to grades or achievement gets tricky with a self-paced classroom with no standardized testing. What I can tell you about all my students is that they all work very hard and are making high B’s and A’s. In my opinion, they are thriving. Just reading over the questionnaire, observation, and interview results informally, led me to believe attitudes about learning environment and curriculum/instruction would have the most impact. It’s what I had invested the most in. I was more than surprised to see C & I to have the least amount of impact once I crunched the numbers and graphed the results. Having a growth mindset scored much higher than I would have thought.