Breaking Down the Neuroscience That's Specific to Math Education
It’s no secret that math can be challenging for many students. If you’re a math teacher, I’m sure you’ve heard your fair share of moans and groans on a daily basis.
A crystal clear solution to making math more enjoyable is using strategies that successfully help your students learn math concepts.
You might be thinking, “Well DUH, of course!” But I don’t mean using teaching strategies in general; I’m talking about teaching specifically for math. It turns out there is proven evidence behind several strategies that improve math learning.
Student brains process math in a different way than other subjects!
Physically, it even turns out that different regions of the brain are activated when doing mathematics.
An article from the National Center of Biotechnology information shares some important findings and insights regarding the brain and math learning. The purpose of this opinion paper is to make a case for neuroscience methodology as a modern tool contributing to the debate on how mathematics should specifically be taught to students.
In their studies, neuroimaging provides a lot of insight into which parts of the brain are working during specific mathematics tasks. One MRI study of mental arithmetic has shown that the pattern of brain activation changes with student age.
Basically, the functional maturation determines the amount of connectivity in a student’s brain that would improve solving mathematical tasks.
… When Students Develop a Mindset for Math
To successfully learn math, students need to develop the correct mindset. Better Explained provides an insightful guide on why and how to develop a mindset for math.
The author provides thoughtful statements and explanations to develop the right mindset, such as “Factual knowledge is not understanding; be open and creative; realize that you can learn.”
"Growth mindset" has been on the radar of most educators for a few years now. It's popular and important. But I had not been aware before just how critical it is to mastering concepts in math class. This re-inspires me to explicitly teach growth mindset and encourage it on a more consistent basis.
This article makes you take a step back and reconsider how we approach thinking about learning math. Are we prioritizing this enough??
… When Math Provides Joy
According to an article from Stanford.edu, there is research that reveals the best way to learn math is through pleasant experiences. Can we replace some tedious lessons with some more joyful ones?
Professor Jo Boaler states, “Students learn math best when they approach the subject as something they enjoy. Speed pressure, timed testing and blind memorization pose high hurdles in the pursuit of math.’
Fortunately, the new Common Core Standards deemphasize rote memorization of math facts. Although knowing these facts are important, it’s more important for students to learn the facts through developing an understanding.
Memorization, speed, and test pressure can be damaging and lead to math anxiety, which, as you might guess, is not a step in the right direction for math learning!
… When Students are able to Grasp Number Sense
An article, Fluency without Fear” by Professor Jo Boaler, the same graduate professor as quoted above, writes about how critical number sense and fluency are to teaching mathematics.
Research tells us that students understand more complex functions when they have number sense and deep understanding of numerical principles, not when they blindly memorize facts to quickly recall.
Boaler worked with PISA analysts at OECD and studied data data from 13 million 15-year olds across the world. It showed that the lowest achieving students are those who focus on memorization and who believe that memorizing is important when studying for mathematics. “This idea starts early in classrooms and is one we need to eradicate. The highest achievers in the world are those who focus on big ideas in mathematics, and connections between ideas. Students develop a connected view of mathematics when they work on mathematics conceptually and blind memorization is replaced by sense making.”
Concepts and connections are more vital to math sucess than memorization.
It turns out that basic number sense is a huge key to success in math. The basic brain connections from early stages must be in place before students can advance to the next level.
Then, as students progress through their developmental stages, they can process new levels of math in new ways. Student brains light up differently at each age, because the mental connections build and grow. They can process new levels of math learning as they learn, grow, and have support through scaffolding.
For more details on how learning stages in math should progress, check out my post on Geometry learning with Van Hiele levels. This shows specific examples of how students progress through each scaffolded level as math learners. Here is an additional post on theVan Hiele Levels as well for Geometry teachers.
Boaler recommends some specific techniques to help build these basic skills. These include a teaching strategy called number talks, addition fact activities, multiplication fact activities, and math cards. All of these activities help students learn math facts, while they do something they enjoy, not fear!
Did any of these insights surprise you? How is your teaching aligning with strategies specifically for math? Let us know in the comments below!