We Need MATH Travel Teams!

Parents, we want the best for our children. We sing to them, read to them and take them to museums. They play sports; learn ballet, practice the piano and master the violin. We cook nutritious meals, get them braces and send them to college. Well done. Yay us!

So. Why am I writing this blog post when our children are being given the best of everything?

There are two things that we could do for our kids that we might not do:

A. Tell them the truth. Math is sometimes hard; our whole country needs to get better at math, and it might not be fun at first.

B. Help them handle that truth. Prioritize their math education; tell them that hard work will result in higher math ability, that the reward for the hard work will be worth it and that they can do it!

We American parents, as a whole, do not take math as seriously as parents in other countries. In a global, knowledge based economy, our children, and our country, will suffer for it. When our children are adults, the economy will increasingly be

“… one in which the generation and exploitation of knowledge has come to play the predominant part in the creation of wealth. It is not simply about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge; it is also about the most effective use and exploitation of all types of knowledge in all manner of economic activity” (DTI Competitiveness White Paper 1998)

This shift to using knowledge to create wealth has been taking place for a few generations. The pace of change is accelerating so quickly that we must act today to prepare our children for the jobs that will be available to them in their lifetime.

Of course there are American parents who help their children to excel in math. But as a country, Americans have bought into the idea that math involves innate talent. You are either born with math ability or you are not.

However, research study after study has shown that math ability is not inborn. Math skill is like a muscle, if you use that muscle it will get stronger. If you ignore the muscle it will atrophy.

So many of us put our 3 year olds on a soccer team, travel with our high school lacrosse players out of state on holiday weekends for a tournament, and spend time in the driveway practicing free throws with our sons and daughters. Most of us are familiar with one sport or another, so we are comfortable coaching our children in these areas and enjoy spending time helping them to excel.

Many of us are not comfortable with math though, so we might not feel as competent coaching our kids in this area. But if we take the same approach to math that we take to sports, we, as a country, could within a few years see the same excellence in math that we see in sports. It will take hard work, drills and practice, on our part and on our children’s’ part, but we can do this; and we won’t blow out a knee helping them!

Dr. Greg Duncan at the University of California in Irvine states that,

“Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement, and it does so just as reliably as early literacy mastery of vocabulary, letters and phonetics predicts later reading success.”
(Early Academic Skills, Not Behavior, Best Predict School Success, Wendy Leopold, Science Daily, November 19, 2007)

Mounting evidence suggest that the mathematical understandings children develop before entering elementary school are highly predictive of later academic achievement, not just in mathematics, but in other subjects as well. Moreover, children who begin school with poor math skills typically do not catch up. Those least prepared are disproportionately underrepresented minorities and from low-income families.
(Math Matters: Children’s Mathematical Journeys Start Early, Executive Summary, Schoenfeld and Stipek, November 2011)

In a great, easy to read article “How to turn every child into a “math person” Miles Kimball argues that everyone can be a math person:

spend more time thinking about and working on math. Best of all: spend time doing math in the kinds of ways people who love math spend time doing math. Think of math like reading. Not everyone loves reading. But all kids are encouraged to spend time reading, not just for school assignments, but on their own. Just so, not everyone loves math, but everyone should be encouraged to spend time doing math on their own, not just for school assignments. If a kid has a bad experience with trying to learn to read in school, or is bored with the particular books the teacher assigned, few parents would say “Well, maybe you just aren’t a reader.” Instead, they would try hard to find some other way to help their kid with reading and to find books that would be exciting for their particular kid. Similarly, if a kid has a bad experience trying to learn math in school, or is bored with some bits of math, the answer isn’t to say “Well maybe you just aren’t a math person.” Instead, it is to find some other way to help that kid with math and to find other bits of math that would be exciting for their particular kid to help build her or his interest and confidence.

In another article, There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t Miles Kimball and Noah Smith state

Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades . . .. But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.” It is no picnic going through life believing you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.

While hard work and self-confidence is key, the one area where Americans excel is creativity and we don’t want to drill that out of our children. As their math competency rises, the kids will be able to play around with math and have fun learning new skills. As Miles Kimball states, kids should:

dig in and wrap their heads around what is going on in the math, without feeling judged for not understanding instantly.

Manil Suri wrote a great article in the New York Times about The Importance of Recreational Math

recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

So there you have it. Hard work and self-confidence will raise math ability in the United States. In addition, American parents can keep joy and creativity alive by helping our children play with math too. No matter where we are starting out, lets all commit to the following:

A. Loving our children enough to believe they are capable of hard work

B. Coaching, drilling and encouraging them to work hard in math

C. Helping them to believe that they can make themselves smarter, in life and math, through hard work.

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