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Creating an Environment Where All Students See That They Can Be Good at Math

More students will see their learning potential when teachers guide them to look beyond narrow metrics of success in math.

Have you ever heard a friend, student, or parent say, “I’m not good at math,” if you’re a math teacher? Have you heard someone say, “I’m not very good at reading”? Most likely not. Few people admit to having difficulties with reading, but many admit to having difficulties with math.

This perception may exist because “being good at math” is defined by narrow and antiquated criteria. This definition could include characteristics like speed, accuracy, and test performance. Can a person be considered good at math even if they lack these characteristics?

When I asked this question on Twitter, the most common responses from math educators included qualities like willingness, problem-solving, pattern recognition, thinking, ideas, curiosity, questioning, and critical thinking. “Why to ask the question?” said math educator and consultant Nick Corley. The question implies that there are those who are not good at math. We all need to be mathematicians, just as we all need to be readers.”

Read More: What is Discovery Education? Tips & Tricks

When I asked my former colleague K-8 math coordinator Michelle Chan about it, she replied, “What makes someone ‘good’ at math?” They must be problem solver who works well with others. They must learn to understand different points of view, share ideas, and collaborate with others to solve difficult problems. In my many years of teaching math, the students who did the best were those who were persistent in problem-solving, especially when the question was difficult to answer. They preferred to figure it out for themselves rather than have it given to them. They took their time to grasp a concept fully and could share their knowledge with others.”

How can math teachers help students see themselves in this light if being good at math means so much more than metrics like speed, accuracy, and test-taking?


Consider the type of practice that is typically assigned in your math class. Are the examples typically procedural or problem-solving in nature? Are most problems brief and straightforward, or elaborate and thought-provoking? Are the answers typically a single number with no context or open-ended?

Check out resources like Open Middle and Slow Reveal Graphs to diversify your practice and include more persistence and curiosity. Students will discover that there is so much more to math than getting a final answer as they gain experience with rich problem-solving and open-ended tasks.

The traditional math curriculum is often described as “a mile long and an inch deep.” Students who have the ability to explore and discuss mathematics will have a chance to shine if there is a way to deepen the topics. The following prompt, for example, provides extensive practice for a variety of standards, including geometry, computation, rounding, estimating, and reasoning. A prompt of this type can be easily modified and expanded to meet the needs of the learner.

An 8-ounce can of paint covers approximately 16 square feet. You are painting a wall that measures 8 feet by 15 feet. You only need about seven cans, according to your friend. What would you say to your friend?


I work with a small group of middle school students who have received poor grades in previous math courses and on standardized tests. They have labeled themselves as bad at math because of their experience of being compared to classmates who are fast and accurate test takers. However, a closer examination reveals that these students excel at risk-taking, storytelling, and pattern recognition.

They were recently asked to tell a story about a continuous piecewise function as a bonus item on a test. They were graded on their understanding of slope, intercepts, domain/range, and horizontal lines within their story. After reading these stories, you might conclude that these students were indeed talented in math. The stories revealed a great deal about their understanding of the concept as well as their creativity.

Art projects, verbal presentations, research assignments, and even performative skits can be included in math assessments. (My summer students act out “The Tortoise and the Hare” with predetermined speeds (slopes) and starting lines) (y-intercepts). You might be surprised by the abilities revealed.

It is possible that the student is failing the assessment because the assessment fails to fully assess the student’s abilities.


Timed multiplication tests and rapid-response math competitions all promote speed in recalling memorized facts. Multiple-choice standardized tests reward students who understand how to play the test-taking game. Only accuracy is recognized by assessments that mark answers as a strict binary of right or wrong. Math teachers can use games and contests to recognize deeper math skills like risk-taking, creativity, and perseverance.

Consider Desmos’ Annual Global Math Art Contest, which judges design as well as the simplicity and variety of mathematics used, and the Museum of Mathematics’ Con Edison annual MoMathlon, which will lead middle school students in “[discussing] solutions, exploring new ways of reaching the answers, and inviting students to share their problem-solving strategies with their fellow budding mathematicians.”

Recognition does not have to be as opulent as a national competition. Extend recognition beyond honor roll students at your next awards ceremony by including awards such as “Innovative Problem Solver” or “Best-Researched Math Project.”

Skip Tyler, a retired educator, and consultant, believes that everyone is a math person. Skip sends out “Everyone Is A MATH Person #ChangeTheStory” stickers to educators who ask for them in order to encourage them to change the story in their classrooms by asking, “Are you increasing student discourse? Putting in place number sense routines? Using rich open-ended tasks? Are you going to use more small-group instruction? Giving students a say in their education?”

To change the story, we can implement changes in our students’ practices, assessments, and recognitions as math educators. We are all math people if we broaden the definition of what it means to be good at math.





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