Fostering True Math Learning

Some introductory brainstorming:

(One clarification first: When I use the words “our” or “we”, I mean “us” as math educators. Now the prompts!)

  1. What limitations from our own math learning are we bringing to our planning and the math experiences we provide our students?
  1. How can we model the skills and mindsets of a savvy problem solver for our students, and how can we model the learning of new skills and mindsets that we as adults don’t yet have ourselves?

Some context and elaboration:

In a recent visit to Cincinnati, Ohio to work with math teachers in the Winton Woods City School District, I pushed the room to take a step back. As a coach for the New Tech Network, it is common practice to push teachers, leaders, schools, and fellow coaches to articulate their purpose, to borrow from Simon Sinek and ask folks to state their “why”. In this case, we brainstormed how each of us might complete the following sentence:

“Math learning, true math learning, is essential because…”

One key phrase kept bubbling up in our sharing was that true math learning fosters and develops savvy problem solvers. So we pushed into what being a savvy problem solver really means and what indicators we might look for.

problem solver

While this is a great ideal, we all know that putting this ideal into practice is difficult. On my trip home from Cincinnati, I re-stumbled across a 2014 New York Times Magazine article titled “Why Do Americans Stinks at Math?” in which Elizabeth Green investigates why math education in the United States historically struggles to achieve this desired true math learning despite repeated, national initiatives (think: “new math” of the 1960s and the challenges of CCSS implementation now to name a few). Green interviews professor Magdalene Lampert who challenges us to assess our role in this struggle. While many of us, me included, were highly successful math students in school – so successful in fact that we became math teachers – Lampert notes that our math learning is likely the product of a traditional math classroom. I admit this line of thought brings up an uncomfortable sense of vulnerability for me. I think to myself: “Is she really saying that I am somehow ‘less than’ in my understanding of mathematics. This can’t be. I am a math teacher and a math coach after all, right?” I could get defensive. I could get defiant. I could foster learning environments that are comfortable for me because they are familiar. Instead, I take her words as a caution and as a nudge. A caution because I must admit that I may not have personally experienced what I try to foster in math classrooms now. And a nudge to be honest about where I can grow and improve.

Some closing brainstorming:

As you head into another school year and now will some additional context, I’ll again pose two questions for further brainstorming:

  1. What limitations from our own math learning are we bringing to our planning and the math experiences we provide our students?
  1. How can we model the skills and mindsets of a savvy problem solver for our students, and how can we model the learning of new mindsets and skills that we as adults don’t yet have ourselves?

Throwing Your Strength

Today I had the honor of helping to kick off New Tech Network’s biggest even yet — almost 2,000 educators striving for innovation! I volunteered to join in the fun by doing an Ignite talk – a 5 minute talk meant to ignite ideas. Below is the text of my talk and the accompanying slide deck. Enjoy!

Ignite Speakers @ NTAC 2015

Throwing Your Strength

In gathering my thoughts about what I am simultaneously challenged by and passionate about, the word “balance” kept making the rounds in my head. But I struggle with the articles, books, or endless pinterest boards that claim to have silver bullet lists for work/life balance. The word balance almost seems trivialized and doing an entire ignite talk on “balance” felt a bit icky to me. Then it dawned on me that perhaps I should take a step back and look up the actual definition. This is where it got interesting…


  • (noun) a state of equilibrium – this seemed standard, good but static
  • (noun) something used to produce equilibrium – this felt better and this definition shifts the word from something static to something a bit more active
  • (noun) the power or ability to decide an outcome by throwing one’s strength, influence, support, or the like, to one side or the other. This is both the definition that was most unexpected but also the one that I most need to see – a definition of the word balance that gave me the power, the wherewithal, to change or decide an outcome.

My first adult stab at balance, at determining a new outcome, came out of necessity, as these efforts often do. Heading into my not only my first year at a New Tech School, but my first year of teaching, like any good newbie I was anxious, excited, and ready to go! My co-teacher and I started out all smiles, but slowly went into a mode of scraping and clawing through the school year. Upon reaching Thanksgiving break, I simply unraveled. Looking at the calendar, the 4-weeks separating me from winter break seemed insurmountable. As a last ditch effort aimed at my desired outcome of self-preservation, I decided that from now on I would shoot for 85% perfection in my teaching. In effect, I set aside my want to go for the advanced score, and instead shot for proficient. This change allowed me to throw my strength at activities like getting a full night’s sleep, squeezing in the occasional workout, and having the time to make an actual dinner each night. In the classroom then, I actually had the energy and the wherewithal to be flexible and responsive in the classroom. By easing up on planning perfection, I actually hit a better outcome and was far more student-centered. What good is a perfect lesson if I’m not present enough to implement it?

This shift I now realize was structural in nature. I had become more aware of my time and threw my strength into re-structuring my daily habits to achieve a new outcome.

What new outcome I continue to tackle now, and what I find harder, is to throw my strength into balancing my moments. Again, I must admit this too has come out of necessity. As someone who lives with Bipolar Disorder, I am far more predisposed to focus on and highlight the sad and difficult moments I experience. But I doubt that I’m alone – it can often be easier to get caught up in the frustrating and the low moments of our lives, easier to wear how busy we are as a badge of honor. As I have grown into my adulthood living with this disorder, I have had to throw my strength into finding and promoting my positive and uplifting moments. I need this balance to sustain myself and even as preventive self care toward off a down cycle. That third definition I referenced earlier gives us all the power and ability to determine an outcome for ourselves. Instead of letting that innate power of choice drift me into a harried or depressed state, I work hard to hopefully choose a more balanced and calmer outcome for myself. It’s not always easy, but I make this choice every day, sometimes multiple times a day.
As we dive into NTAC and as the school year quickly approaches, most of us will first think about the outcomes we want for our students. But I urge you to also take a few moments to think about your think about your own outcomes, your own balance. During this time that promises to be fully of learning, stress, growth, collaboration, and long days, I’d like to gently challenge each one of you with the following, perhaps deceptively, simple question: where will you throw your strength?

Ignite Talk Slide Deck