When The Perfect Packer Of The Freezer Space Still Says, “I’m Bad At Math” …

Very early this morning — at a time when most of the population was still sleeping 🙂 — I was having a private conversation on Twitter with Doug Peterson about math. I happened to read Doug’s blog today about the posts that he would be discussing with Stephen Hurley and Diana Maliszewski on VoicEd Radio, and I noticed that the first post was one that he had discussed before. Doug mentioned that he wanted to hear Diana’s thoughts about when students start to “hate” math, and when they start to think that they are not “good” at math. In our discussion, I said, “It’s not in Kindergarten,” and while my initial intention was just to blog about why not, listening to the VoicEd radio recording, has me thinking beyond this.

As many of my blog readers know, I have taught in primary — and particularly in  Kindergarten — for most of my career, but I’ve also taught all of the other grades from grades 1-6 in some capacity. By teaching these different grades — and at times, the same children in multiple grades — I’ve seen how student attitudes and skills vary as they get older. Just as Diana mentioned in the recording today about EQAO data on primary students’ attitudes towards reading versus junior students’, I think that I’ve noticed similar trends in attitudes towards math. It was as I thought about this that I remembered a great conversation with a high school student at camp this summer. At the end of the summer, this student volunteered to help out with some cleaning and packing up of materials. One of the many jobs that I needed help with was storing over 400 popsicles and ice cream sandwiches in the freezer for campers and their families. We had a small number of freezers and lots of boxes of goodies. How was I supposed to do this? This volunteer made the impossible, possible. One of the greatest things about this was the math conversation that happened as a result.

Here’s a student that self-identified as “bad at math,” but I can guarantee you that he has better spatial awareness skills than I do. He was amazed to hear from me though that what he did here was “math.” I think about the Kindergarten Program Document, and how we “notice and name” math behaviours in the everyday. This doesn’t mean that we don’t teach or reinforce specific skills, but we …

  • help students see the numerous math concepts that they’re already exploring through play.
  • get students to think mathematically about their world.
  • encourage students to figure out how to approach and solve problems. 

And these are all things that are not just for Kindergarten. Imagine if this student that’s “great at puzzles” begins to see himself as a “mathematician.” 

  • Does this mean that he might be willing to stick with other, more challenging components of math?
  • What if these more challenging areas were presented to him within the context of something that he better understands?
  • How might this change his attitude towards math and his application of  mathematical skills? 

I realize that expectations become more complex as students progress through the grades, but as someone who could only hope to ever pack a freezer as this student did, I wish that he knew just how “good” he is at math. Don’t you?


4 thoughts on “When The Perfect Packer Of The Freezer Space Still Says, “I’m Bad At Math” …

  1. I enjoyed our “early morning discussion”, Aviva. I like how you made the connection with spacial awareness and a practical problem to solve. If only every concept could be this practical.

    As I read your post, I wonder if the student realized that he solved a mathematics problem or whether he just realized that he solved a problem.

    I still am at ends to get a grip around the age and what flips the switch to make anyone come up with the statement in your title “I’m bad at math”.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! When we were chatting, I explained that this was a “math problem,” and he was truly surprised. Digging a little deeper, it sounds like he struggled the most with number sense, and he marks on “tests and assignments” made him know that he was “bad at math.” He actually said to me later, “If you saw my marks, you’d know that too.” In Kindergarten, when there are no marks, and we’re focused on an asset lens of what children “can do,” does this make a difference? I have to wonder if lower marks in some grades help students believe that they’re “bad at math.” I do really wonder if it at least plays a role. Curious to hear what others think. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning. I need to continue to think about this topic, and maybe blog again.


  2. Great that you focussed on the student’s perception of his learning! This will build on his confidence as a learner. We don’t want the our students thinking they are “bad” at anything. Students recognize that they are better at some things than others, and we want to encourage this recognition to support their ability to set goals and to embrace struggle and lack of initial success (aka failure) as a fundamental part of the learning process What would have happened if the student struggled to complete the task? How might his perception of learning been different? You are an amazing educator and would have supported him. So, we recognize success, what led to success and build on success by helping him establish next steps for learning. We also embrace lack of success as a part of learning, identify where the issue is, and help him establish next steps for learning. Helping students see connections when we notice and name learning is key to developing their metacognitive skills. Providing them with student selected environments and tasks helps especially when they struggle. Helping students develop their courage and embrace challenge (for example in the tasks and environments that they can’t always control) will develop their belief in themselves. Noticing and naming their learning provides meaning, deepens their understanding (of content and themselves), and adds to their learned experiences. Courage and and a hunger for challenge allow learning to be the never-ending process we want it to be.

    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words, John! I agree with you about the importance of helping children embrace challenges, and also using noticing and naming as a way of developing metacognitive skills as well as building on skills in different environments that are meaningful and chosen by the students. It breaks my heart when students see themselves as “bad” at anything, and like Doug, I wonder why students have this impression and how we can change it. This experience though also made me think about just how huge “math” is. Here’s a student that saw himself as “bad at math,” but also didn’t even consider this packing job as a math challenge. I wonder what might happen if some more challenging components of math for him (particularly number sense) was linked to an area of strength (e.g., spatial skills). Would this change his understanding and confidence on dealing with numbers, and his impression of himself as a mathematician? I know that if somebody did this for me, it would have the opposite effect, which again comes down to knowing your learner. This could be most important of all, regardless of the subject area. And might this be why relationships have to come first?


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