To be a good mathematician is to be both creative and logical. Everything in mathematics comes back to a basic foundation of problem solving. It is not the many answers you know or memorize, but rather how you attack a problem when you don’t know.
There are times when we sit with students and come across a problem that we do not know how to solve immediately. The student is always shocked. “You don’t know how to solve this problem?!” they ask incredulously.
Proudly, we tell them, “No, no I do not.” We say this with a believable confidence because we know it is an important lesson for all students to learn at an early age. No one has all the answers, whether mathematicians, teachers, adults or anyone else that students perceive are the “all-knowing people.”
What makes us successful teachers is that we know how to problem solve. So often, the crux of the problem solving comes from the most basic of mathematics. For example, a student may be doing an algebraic equation, solving for “x” that has fractions in it. A lot of it goes back to strong number sense, the power to break apart numbers which leads to a strong understanding of factors and multiples. Without this, all understanding of fractions, never mind solving for “x”, falls apart.
People falsely believe that they are either good at mathematics or they are bad. They see it as black and white. This idea is frustrating for several reasons. To start, a pianist does not say, “I am a bad pianist; it was just the way I was born.” Nor, does the mother say, “I am a bad mother, I never understood it.” No, what a pianist does is practice, practice and then practice some more. When parents are struggling with a particular piece of parenting, they do research, talk to people, and find ways to improve their parenting skills. Unfortunately, America has made it socially acceptable to say, “I’m not a math person” or “I am bad in math.” It should be an insult to our ingenuity as a country to weave this kind of thinking into who we are. Our history is steeped in those who are problem solvers; those who pride themselves in doing hard work and developing grit.
We need our children to know that everyone is a mathematician. Everyone is a problem solver and most importantly to know that logic and creativity aren’t genetic gifts, but rather skills to be developed over time. The greatest joys we see in our work is when kids realize that this isn’t a “locked” door, with the key only available to some. It is an open door, and one that leads to an infinite number of places for everyone.
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