Developing "Mathy" Students

Written by: Jay Meadows, Exemplars, CEO

What do we hope to help our math students become? I bet your answer includes, “learners who are ready to use their math skills in the real world to solve real-world problems.”

If so, I totally agree. In fact, that’s the hallmark of an Exemplars student—one who knows how to engage in challenging problems, to persevere in solving them, and is confident to share their strategies with others.

After all, being a strong student isn’t strictly about knowing all the answers. Being a strong student is about knowing how to find them.

So what skills does this actually require from our students? My answer might not reflect the conventional wisdom: I do not believe the number one skill our students need is to be fast and efficient with calculations—not when we all now walk around with powerful calculators (mobile devices) in our pockets. Is being able to calculate accurately and efficiently important? Of course. But, I want to suggest that we help them develop some other, more transferable qualities.

student video chatting

I urge us all to foster a love of math in our students. We can build this love while we also build their concrete abilities. Both form important skills they’ll need to solve complex problems.

When we do this, they’ll grow as critical thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, investigators, innovators, tinkerers and creators. After all, our students are going to shape the future. We have to help prepare them.

Inspire Mathiness

That love of math we want to see comes naturally to some. But any educator knows that’s certainly not a given. So, what is it that makes some kids love it while others do not? I find students who love math have discovered an exciting truth: Math is actually not about right or wrong answers.

Mathy students have learned the power of discovery and the fun of innovation in understanding math concepts. They allow themselves to play with problems, use tools, find accessible entry points, and explore possible solutions. They realize the answer is not seconds away—the result of a sudden insight or a quick calculation—but rather a marvelous combination of their ideas and their friends’. The answer is only a part of the adventure in making sense of the problem and solving it successfully.

So our goal is to inspire this “mathiness” in our students. One powerful way we can do this is through practice solving complex tasks.

Develop a Math Mindset

Using our tasks over time and following our Problem-Solving Process, an Exemplars student develops a mindset that when confronted with a challenging task, there will be time to explore, problem-solve, use math tools, and innovate. They create representations or diagrams to help them make sense of the information in the task allowing them to look for patterns. An Exemplars student learns to access prior knowledge to look for strategies that can be flexibly manipulated to help them unpack a new, unexpected problem—a process you can support within each student.

As they work through these steps, an Exemplars student wonders if there is another way to solve the same problem that might be more efficient, or help them provide evidence to support their conclusion. But experience with our tasks has also taught them to push further...

An Exemplars student recognizes how to organize and show all of their work so an audience understands their thinking and how they solved the problem. They have learned to craft and design highly-persuasive arguments that are based on evidence and dependent on mathematical reasoning.

And after all this, an Exemplars student is prepared to share those thoughts effectively. They understand the ability to communicate mathematical ideas through mathematical discourse or with written solutions that show and explain their thinking. These skills matter as much as their ability to calculate.

So to sum it up, an Exemplars Student is one who loves math because they’ve explored its countless possibilities and learned how to apply them.

Shape Their Learning

Innovative, creative lovers of math are not born. They are developed. These types of students are a pleasure to work with. But we need not rely on luck to bring these students into our lives. Instead, we have the ability to shape their learning environment so that exploration, innovation, and creativity are foundational in our classrooms—so that they have a chance to become Exemplars students and, moreover, the skilled and confident problem solvers the world needs.

Try a free Exemplars task in your classroom today and get them started down an exciting path to success.