We are all Mathematicians!

I’m becoming a mathematician.

For a long time, I was a high school math teacher, but I’ve moved so far beyond that now.  Not by going back to university, but by going right back to grade 1.

Yes, that’s right, I went back to grade 1 to become a mathematician.

Even though I was the top student in “math” at my high school, I didn’t really learn math at all.  I learned rules.  I memorized rules.

Rules like – when presented with “this”, do “this” and you’ll get the right answer. Check the back of the book to make sure.  Practice lots,  then write the test and get 100%!

Or, here’s the formula, plug the numbers into the right place, and the answer on the teacher’s answer key will pop out, giving you full marks.

That was the game.  I was really good at it!

As a parent, I wanted my kids to be good at math too.  I wanted them to get great marks in math because that opens doors.

But in reality, being “good at math” wasn’t what I was encouraging at all.  I was encouraging my “version” of math – rule memorization and correct application [getting the teacher’s answer and showing how you got there exactly how the teacher asks you to].

But my kids  weren’t nearly as eager as I had been to spend endless hours memorizing the right rules to use in the right places.

Image on unsplash by Lane Oak https://unsplash.com/search/math?photo=pA-JqsOMZDs


So what changed me?  When did I start becoming a mathematician?

As part of my work, I had the opportunity to take my P/J Mathematics Part 1 AQ, in a unique way, with other education leaders, in a blended online format interspersed with intense f2f learning sessions.

On the first day, we were asked to “do some math”.  I was panicky.  What if I couldn’t remember how?

And that’s the question, right? Why should I have to “remember how”?


In the first problem we solved together, I began to understand that there was  no one right way to solve it. My way of figuring it out was as interesting as the way others chose to work.  We became more interested in how we saw the problem than we were in the answer, because how others saw it was fascinating!

This is especially well-illustrated by our expert friend and colleague Dr. Jo Boaler in this section of her TEDxStanford talk (full talk posted below).

Math is beautiful.  It’s fun, it’s intriguing, it’s social, it can be a game.  But I think for many parents, it’s still about memorizing rules and getting the answer the teacher wants.

In their recent podcast, Getting Parents Ready for New Context of School, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon examine the responsibility we have as education leaders to share what we know about learning with parents who don’t necessarily encounter this kind of information in the normal course of their lives. They recognize that parents often have a low bar for change, wanting their own school experiences to be repeated for their children.

Borrowing from Piaget, simply repeating what we did when we were in school is not the purpose of education, and it isn’t good enough for our kids.

As I work through #notabookstudy, and I read the classic work of Dr. Cathy Fosnot, I learn the importance of teaching our children as “Young Mathematicians at Work“, developing strategies and number fluency, building automaticity and understanding number relationships.


As education leaders, how do we invite parents to hold hands with their children and become mathematicians with them?

We’ve been exploring this in our #notabookstudy Twitter chats. (See the Storify for our answers)


Imagine what we can achieve when parents, children and teachers work as mathematicians, together!


Image by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash




Featured image by Sergey Zoltkin on Unsplash


Young Mathematicians

Jo Boaler’s Full TEDxStanford Talk:

No, Teaching Math the “Old-Fashioned Way” Won’t Work (Paul Wells, Toronto Star)


5 thoughts on “We are all Mathematicians!

  1. I’ve thought about your post throughout the day. Mostly because some grumpy Twitter trolls were keen to disagree. I was a terrible math student – opposite to you. I couldn’t remember the rules, and I was always trying to make math make sense & it didn’t (for me, then.) I didn’t get over 90% on a math test until I was in university.
    One of my first days as a supply teacher, I was in a grade 8 math class. Their homework had been to “round and add” a bunch of numbers. My job was to help them check their homework by giving them the answers. First question one says, “It didn’t say if we should round to the nearest 10, or nearest 100. I rounded to the nearest 100 & got (x). Is that okay?” Immediately another student said he’d rounded to the nearest 10 & got (x), which also disagreed with the book answer. For the first time in my life I understood why they’d been directed to “round” in order to estimate the answer. This changed me into a math person. I was 26.
    So all those people who were on Twitter today saying that if a kid hadn’t caught up by grade 6 they’ll never catch up can just stop. I agree that math is beautiful and intriguing. If I’d been told there was not one right way to do things and that puzzling through a question was the most important work, I think I’d have become a mathematician earlier.
    At the end you said, “Imagine what we can achieve when parents, teachers and children work together.” That parents would need to supplement math instruction at home was another point the trolls tried to make….AS IF THATS A SIGN OF WEAKNESS! Well, the people I know who do math around the kitchen table during dinner are some of the most interesting people I know.
    Ok…that was a long reply. Here’s the short version: I love this post and it got me thinking.

    1. Thanks Lisa!

      I love the trolls, to be honest. They help me understand the opposition, help me craft the message, rethink my thinking, push me to be clearer, more focused, more true to truth.

      For me, access to amazing math instruction is the biggest equity issue in our schools because lack of math ability and understanding can suppress opportunity. I’m insanely focused now on figuring this out. How can we ensure every child is in a place that respects and cultivates math learning?

      I don’t think that happens until parents are partners and understand the work. And parents, like me, might have to come back to grade 1 and start rebuilding their own number fluency and understanding. So let’s make sure they have space to do this too.

      The beauty of the mathematics was separated from the subject for me long ago, and I’m thriving in a place now where they come back together and help us see the world differently. Let’s not separate this for our kids any more.

      Fluency and automaticity take time and work but that is only a small part of what math is.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thinking with me.

      1. Yes…there is inequity in the instruction, even though the curriculum is the same. I’ve been thinking more about how differently we view reading & math in our society. Parents are mostly convinced that reading is important at home. But I think many still consider math something that needs to be taken care of at school. I wish I could look into the future 20 years and see if that is still so.

  2. Your post reminded me of using a dot card with my junior level students, as shown by Jo Boaler in this video (https://www.youcubed.org/jo-dot-card-number-talk/). I was floored by how many different ways something as simple as seven dots could be seen. I think that this activity was a great way to begin the year by showing that everyone thinks about things differently but that we can all still come to the same final answer. Many of her activities also help teachers, students, and parents to understand the importance of mistakes to help with learning. Taking her first on-line course really got me thinking about growth mindset and how to better incorporate it into my daily work as a teacher (and as a mother and as a wife, etc.). I look forward to her next course this summer!

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