Have you ever tried teaching someone a concept or skill that came easily to you?
You might know how to play octaves on a piano, conjugate a Spanish verb, or turn a fraction into a percentage.
But when faced with explaining the why behind those steps, you might find yourself fumbling around.
That’s what Christina was experiencing a short while ago.
Homeschooling her nine kids has been “a joy and a success story, with the exception of math. I stink at teaching it.”
That’s been a challenging conundrum for Christina because she’s “always loved and excelled in math.”
It’s hard for her to explain something — math — that comes so easily to her.
“I cannot understand what it is that is stumping up my kids,” she confesses, “and then we all end up frustrated.”
That’s not Christina’s fault. Teaching fundamental math concepts is something teachers are trained to do over many years.
“Any time they need to memorize something or hit a concept that they aren't getting, we get more behind. They get bored, frustrated, and eventually embarrassed.”
Here’s an added challenge hidden in that last statement: the way Christina was taught math — like most of us — is a thing of the past.
Rote memorization is no longer the ideal measure of math understanding.
Make no mistake, knowing how to perform arithmetic quickly is beneficial. But what is too often overlooked is conceptual math fluency.
That means being able to apply your math knowledge to various situations.
Being able to rattle off your times tables doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily know whether to apply multiplication to, say, a geometry problem.
If you’re like Christina, that kind of mathematical thinking may come naturally to you. Which makes teaching your kids that much harder, because you can’t really relate to their mental block.
Many parents are appreciating just how challenging it is to teach this year.
Some people are natural teachers.
But all teachers need substantial education and experience before entering a classroom.
It’s not easy to answer the kinds of complicated how and why questions that kids ask at every age.
And parents like Christina are fielding a lot of those questions these days. She has to manage a household of nine kids between the ages of two months and 18 years old.
“I'm feeling overwhelmed and looking for anything to help us get back on track and stay on track.”
Christina has identified some particularly strong math anxiety in her 14-year-old daughter, Abby.
According to Christina, Abby is “interpreting her struggle with math to mean that she isn't smart, which breaks my heart because she's brilliant in so many other areas.”
That’s a common refrain from so many parents. You know your child is smart, but math just isn’t their “strong suit.”
Unfortunately, that seemingly innocuous comment can have a lasting impact on your kids.
Researchers at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education have summarized the issue succinctly.
“We now know that the messages we give students can change their performance dramatically and that students need to know that the adults in their lives believe in them.
“Researchers are learning that students’ ideas about their ability and potential are extremely important, much more than previously understood.
These studies “communicate the importance of the messages students receive, as it was not math knowledge that harmed the students’ performance but the parents’ anxiety.”
Math anxiety in many students like Abby can be traced back to their elementary school days. More specifically, to timed tests and forced memorization, says Stanford University professor Jo Boaler.
"Neuroscientists have shown recently that for people with math anxiety, a fear center lights up in their brain — the same as when they see snakes and spiders — and the problem-solving center of the brain shuts down," Boaler said in a recent NPR interview.
That means kids like Abby are caught in a vicious cycle of failure. When they’re presented with a math problem, they feel fear. This fear shuts down the problem-solving part of the brain needed to solve the math problem.
Fortunately, now that we know how this problem operates, we can find solutions to address it.
One solution is cultivating a growth mindset - a term first coined by Dr. Carol Dweck to describe an individual’s self-perception.
Rather than describing yourself as having innate abilities, you focus on your ability to learn and grow through experiences.
A growth mindset means telling yourself “I can solve problems, even if it takes a while.”
(That self-affirmation should replace the fixed mindset statement: “I’m smart, but I’m bad at math, and that’s just how I am.”)
A growth mindset works because it’s founded on the research-backed demonstration of your brain’s neuroplasticity.
In a 2007 study, “seventh-graders who were taught that intelligence is malleable, and shown how the brain grows with effort, showed a clear increase in math grades.”
“In addition to teaching kids about malleable intelligence, researchers started noticing that...the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out.
“For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset.
“When students have a growth mindset, they take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement.”
Fortunately for Christina, Elephant Learning gave her the opportunity to cultivate Abby’s growth mindset and get her back on track with math.
For kids like Abby the Elephant Learning app provides a much-needed boost to their confidence.
The app is filled with games that teach math concepts.
No formal math lessons with quizzes and scores.
Just games designed by educators who know how to teach math concepts through games.
That means Christina doesn’t have to worry about trying to explain a math concept to her kids.
Elephant Learning shows a math concept — like algebra — using a variety of puzzles.
The games dynamically adjust to meet Abby’s existing math level.
It builds her confidence by asking her to “try again” if she doesn’t solve a puzzle on the first try. She’s already building a growth mindset by learning that “failing” on the first try doesn’t mean she won’t eventually solve it.
If she gets frustrated, she can move on to a different game. The app keeps track of the math concepts she’s mastered, and the ones she’s still learning.
Christina can log in and review all of that learning data, for all of her kids.
Elephant Learning gives Christina some coaching tips on how to talk to each of her kids about math concepts.
It even offers additional suggestions for games she can play with them offline.
These additional tips for offline playtime are what will help Christina teach all her kids in an anxiety-free, playful environment.
Sudha Swaminathan, an early childhood education professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, says "Research has shown that when parents just play, they're actually really, really good at pulling out these deep [math] concepts from children — much better than even teachers.”
In her NPR interview she notes that “children who are successful in math have parents who point out math even in the most ordinary moments. For example, "You ask them to put their books away. It doesn't fit? Why doesn't it fit? Maybe the book is too tall? Too big?"
“Not only are you introducing the concept of measurements, but you're also introducing a math process: problem-solving.
“Blocks, puzzles, card games, and even video games all have some research support. And board games are particular stars in this area.
“Research has shown that the more kids play any game with dice and numbered squares — like Chutes and Ladders — the better their basic math skills get.
Elephant Learning offers some open-ended questions to ask your kids. These types of questions are ideal because they don’t have right or wrong answers.
“The reason this is important gets back to the roots of math anxiety. As Jo Boaler describes it, many students can get turned off by math instruction that focuses on high-pressure memorization of facts and formulas. They find it stressful, shallow, or both.
“She recommends instilling a love of math along with a growth mindset; in other words, the insight that it's possible to improve one's skills by effort and experience.
“If you want to drive this lesson home, Swaminathan says you can deliberately make a mistake and give your child a chance to correct you.”
Elephant Learning adjusted the math games for Abby’s comfort level, which was at the 11-year-old level when she started. Abby didn’t know that her skills were at that age level, but the app did.
By removing the shame around feeling behind, Abby was able to embrace the fun math games and not worry about how she was progressing.
The app offered her more challenging problems only after she’d achieved a certain degree of mastery.
The app didn’t push or pull Abby along. There’s no predetermined path she had to adhere to.
She chooses her own path.
This allows her to enjoy the learning experience, even as the material gets progressively harder.
By building her confidence, she’s less likely to feel anxious when she encounters unfamiliar content.
She’s learning that she doesn’t have to be scared of math and that she is capable of anything.
After only six weeks of playing on the app, Abby has already mastered a year’s worth of math concepts.
Thirty minutes a week is all it takes to get kids like Abby on a track towards lasting math confidence and success.
She’s learned that failure does not mean she’s not smart, it just means she needs more time.
And parents like Christina don’t have to feel guilty about their inability to teach complex math concepts.
As a homeschooling mom of nine kids, that’s a powerful thing she can continue to rely on.