Affirming Mathematical Identities
During Remote Learning
by Peter Tierney-Fife
As you refine and reflect on remote learning, we encourage you and the teachers you work with to consider students’ mathematical identities and the potential impacts and opportunities related to them. Students’ mathematical identities drive how they engage with mathematics and how they interpret their mathematical experiences. In addition to one’s belief about their ability to do (or not to be able to do) mathematics, it also includes ideas such as which people (genders, races, etc.) are expected to do well at mathematics, and what kinds of behaviors (for example, speed) are valued when doing mathematics. Consider these short video clips of Gabby, a first grader, and Hailey, a fifth grader. What beliefs do they hold about themselves as mathematicians?
Clearly, students in elementary grades can already have strong and nuanced mathematical identities!
Mathematical identities are complex and they change over time. A person’s mathematical identity and how it changes may influence their learning pathway, their mathematics achievement, and their life-long decision-making (see YouCubed article). The nature of students’ experiences and the messages they receive from teachers and parents/caregivers matter greatly. We wonder about the experiences and messages that contributed to the development of Gabby’s and Hailey’s mathematical identities. Educators and parents/caregivers (really everyone!) have mathematical identities too. We invite you to reflect on how your mathematical experiences and the messages you received about mathematics have influenced your mathematical identity and your life.
Attending to equity includes attending to students’ mathematical identities. It is important that we help all students to develop confidence in their ability to do mathematics. All students can learn mathematics and must do so to lead productive lives. A statement like “I am not a math person” is as unacceptable as “I am not a reader.” The neurodevelopmental framework is a very useful tool for helping students (and their teachers) think about their learning profile, and their evolving strengths and needs in relation to learning mathematics. Thinking about students as “low” versus “high” mathematics learners is not very productive, and could lead to conveying subtle messages that undermine students’ self-confidence. Even students who perform poorly on tests bring strengths to mathematics learning, and students who perform well bring areas of weakness. It is important for educators to acknowledge each students’ areas of strength and build on them to address areas of weakness.
Some ideas for teachers and parents/caregivers that affirm positive student mathematical identities are listed below.
Teachers can learn about and affirm students’ positive mathematical identities during remote learning:
- Plan collaboratively with colleagues on ways to help students build positive mathematical identities and communicate about this topic with parents/caregivers (examples are in the second list, below).
- Ask students about their attitudes and beliefs related to mathematics, possibly including their problem-solving processes, cultural messages related to mathematics (such as in media or in their community), and stereotypes related to mathematics.
- Work to lessen students’ mathematics anxiety, including reducing time-based performance pressure, and encourage learning from mistakes.
- Value student thinking and look for and affirm students’ strengths related to mathematics, including in their learning histories, cultures, neurodevelopmental profiles, and additional languages and ways of communicating.
- Support a growth mindset related to mathematics, including through using tasks and adaptations that support appropriate productive struggle and/or collaborative work, and through learning about positive mathematical role models.
- Help students understand their neurodevelopmental learning profiles and the specific strengths and needs they bring to learning mathematics, and encourage students to self-advocate and ask for the help and support they need to strengthen their weaknesses.
Parent/caregiver feelings about mathematics can have powerful effects on their child, including both positive and negative effects. For example, one study found that “even when math-anxious parents have good intentions, their homework help may backfire, decreasing children’s math learning and increasing their math anxiety across the school year” (Maloney et al., p. 1486). Here are ideas for ways teachers and school leaders can help parents/caregivers affirm positive mathematical identities for their children:
- Communicate the importance of positive messages about mathematics and their child’s growth as a mathematician.
- Share example ways to convey positive messages about mathematics, including about embracing challenges and productive struggle, such as, “I am impressed with how you keep working on this task.” Encourage parent/caregivers to tell their child “it’s okay to not know”; if their child says, “I can’t do this” they can respond with “yet—but you can learn to do it!” If they are able to work with their child, they can say “let’s figure this out together” and model what they do when they don’t know what to do.
- Provide resources or strategies to help reduce parent/caregiver anxiety or stress related to doing mathematics work with their child (or related to mathematics generally), such as example answers or information about the mathematics written for them as instructional partners.
- Encourage parents/caregivers to notice and affirm their child’s mathematical strengths and progress; this could include generic questions for them to consider (such as, “When do I see my child successful with mathematics?”) and questions to ask their child (“What have you been learning while you do this?”).
Reference: Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, Gerardo, Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., and Beilock, S. L. “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety.” Psychological Science, vol. 26, no. 9, pp. 1480–1488.
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.