The final variable in the formula for producing the students we want is v for value. (It’s tough not repeating coming up with all these variables without repeating a letter.) To get students who are engaged learners in math, we must value their effort and reinforce that their effort has value. Let’s start with the valuing their effort idea. The research on praise suggests that we focus on the work not the person. It isn’t that a successful kid is “smart.” We tend to associate intelligence, being smart, with innate ability. If you don’t have it, why do it. Fortunately, intelligence changes over time. Our brains are plastic; they change as we learn. That’s the message we need to send our kids. It takes effort, but you can do it. Even natural abilities can be squandered without practice. It was great hearing Lebron James talk about his work ethic as the key to his basketball success during this year’s NBA playoffs. Being tall is no guarantee that you’ll be a good basketball player. It was also gratifying when my son’s advisor extolled our kid’s work ethic at his high school graduation. The poor kid is a victim of the research I’ve been following. He used to be smart. Now he’s effortful. Some students will take more effort than others, but with focus and attention, much can be achieved.
The other part of the value proposition, that student effort has value, leads us to help students see that math is relevant. Mathematical and algebraic thinking are things we do all the time (check an earlier blog). And some particular mathematical skills -- arithmetic, data analysis, and statistics, among others -- have become part of being a 21st century citizen using 21st century tools, like spreadsheets. It’s worth learning math, not for the grade, but to satisfy intellectual curiosity, to improve analytical thinking, and to be an informed consumer. Math has value and the effort to learn has value too.
There you go. b+i+f+a=the kids we get in our math classrooms (born+informal+formal+affect). And e+c+d+v=the kids we want (evaluate+connect+differentiate+value). Like most models and metaphors, these formulas are not the truth. But they do help us think about our students and how to improve their learning experiences.