On helping children to love math

Some version of the following comes through my email Inbox every so often.

My daughter does not like maths. How can I ignite the passion for maths? She’s 8 and I feel she’s got to learn the importance of maths but how can I do it?  A teacher told her Maths is not for everyone and she believes it. Help!

Here is a version of my standard response.


Your story strikes close to my heart.

You may well know that girls are much more likely to get these kinds of messages from teachers than boys are, and they are much more likely to internalize these messages, as their teachers are much more likely to be same-gender role models.

It is all heartbreaking.

And I’ve seen these forces first-hand this year with my 9-year-old daughter. Her teacher said to her in a parent-teacher conference, “Your mind is better with words than with numbers, isn’t it?”

This, despite extensive evidence that she is a super creative mathematical thinker. A significant fraction of that evidence is documented on my blog, Talking Math with Your Kids.

With my own children, I have taken the perspective that “loving math” or even “appreciating its importance” may not be reasonable goals. Instead, being able to see math in their lives, and becoming competent mathematicians is.

Of course I would love for my children to love math, just as I would love for them to love reading. But I can’t enforce those emotions. What I can do is infuse my children’s everyday world with shapes, patterns, and numbers just as I infuse their world with words and stories.

This blog is full of concrete examples of opportunities for this. The post about hot chocolate is probably the simplest and clearest example of how parents can make simple changes to support their kids’ developing mathematical minds.

I would also recommend spending some time reading the research posts. There’s a lot of useful and interesting research work going on in math education right now, especially as it pertains to elementary-aged children, parents, and math.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if there is anything further I can do to support you and your daughter.

I wish you both the best!

Christopher

6 thoughts on “On helping children to love math

  1. I agree and support your arguments and would like to add-on to your thinking. Unfortunately, this young mathematician is already developing a fixed-mind set toward intelligence and “being good” in doing mathematics. Mathematics is more! Your point about making connections to the little girl’s daily life is right on! Having my little 5 year old girl, I hammer noticing mathematics in our daily living to the point that she calls me out now and then and tells me to stop asking her math questions.
    Rather, we need to help her little girl develop a growth-mind set toward doing mathematics and playing with mathematics even when she may not realize it. Mathematics is more than just procedures. Mathematics is about reasoning, communicating, and problem solving to name a few principles. Mathematics is developmental so perhaps, she may need some differentiated work. If the teacher views mathematics as procedural then it is likely some of her students view it as such. I’m not presuming the child’s teacher is but, I would inquire by asking, “What are your beliefs about children’s learning and understanding of mathematics?” The teachers responses will provide you insight regarding her own believes about learning mathematics. Does the teacher’s responses indicate her belief between fixed and growth-mind set?

    Best to all in the coming school year!

  2. This is such perfect timing Christopher! I am teaching a workshop on fact fluency and am building in some preliminary discussions around Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets and the recent study by Beilock et al on female teachers passing on gender beliefs etc. I am going to use your post!! Thanks as always for such thoughtful posts and wonderful work!!

  3. There are two points here:
    (1) bad attitudes that are still widespread. The top ones are:
    – [people like you] aren’t good at math
    – being good at math means being fast and calculating accurately

    I’ve been thinking about this since reading a similar post on Tracy Zager’s blog. No matter how many great growth mind-setters may be in a child’s life, they are still going to meet fixed mindsetters.

    My conclusion is that we need to be proactive in preparing our kids for encountering these ideas, perhaps similar to the way we deal with bullying. We have to go beyond modeling good values ourselves and explicitly talk about the misconceptions.

    Things we need to address: what people are likely to say, why it is wrong, why people say it, how it will make the kids feel, what the kids should do when they hear it, what they should do if they see it happen to someone else. I would also include frank conversations about self-evaluation and self-worth, particularly noting that *everyone* (nb: maybe not Terry Tao?) has moments of doubt about their value, their skills, their potential, their contribution.

    Note, I wrote “kids,” but adult learners probably need to get these lessons, too.

    (2) Can we get our kids to love math?
    Frankly, I’m really surprised about CD’s conclusion that this is not a reasonable goal. I would really like to hear more of the experience and research behind this. Naively, I would have thought that (a) showing your own love of math and (b) providing opportunities to engage with a wide range of mathematical experiences would produce a good yield of mathphiles.

    • Thank you for this post. When my daughter was 6, her teacher told us that she was a “dancing, singing sort of a kid” and that she wasn’t really great at math but that it was ok. I was appalled. I set out to teach her math with the intent to show her how terrific math is. To my dismay, she fought me. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to make her love math. I had to figure out why I was teaching her math every day at home. In the end, I decided that even if she wasn’t going to be a theoretical physicist, no one was going to intimidate her with numbers and simple arithmetic. When we got to 5th grade, people started calling her a math whiz. They called her “gifted with math.” I was so angry. My child had worked so hard for every bit of math learning. No one gifted her any of it. It was earned. When she finished learning arithmetic, I said I would stop teaching her math. My husband strongly objected. He said that he had grown up lacking confidence in math and that it had affected his career choices and school applications. He said we need to get through calculus. So now my daughter is in 8th grade and finishing geometry at home and starting to learn quadratics and trigonometry. She is thinking about taking a college level math class to try it out. And she IS a dancing, singing kid who has been on stage in six different musicals in the past year. She might not love math but she isn’t afraid of math. That’s enough for me.

  4. Pingback: This Week: Moving Forward and Responding to “I’m Bad at Math” / Global Math Department

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