Parents: Are we sabotaging our own kids' math "ability"?

CJ Westerberg, January 19, 2015 11:17 AM


(Editor's Note: Post below is A Daily Riff Classic and a topic that seems to be "new" again  - C.J. Westerberg)

"Many parents in the United States assume that (math ability)
is just some kind of aptitude -
some kids have it, some kids don't . . .
The result is most of our kids (in the U.S.) don't do really
well in Math . . ."
- Daniel Koretz, professor of education at Harvard

Two Minute Video Below

Glad to have discovered Daniel Koretz's interesting video discussing how parents influence their own childrens' perceptions about the latter's math ability.  Koretz is also author of the book,"Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us."  Here are a few notable quotes below:

"In this country, It's considered perfectly acceptable to be incompetent in Mathematics.
In fact, certain people are rather proud to be incompetent in Mathematics."

We know our kids model us as parents.   Why do we encourage such low expectations in Math?  Do we want to make our kids feel better, if WE think they're not "good" at Math by saying that we aren't good at math?

" . . .much of the variation in how well you do -
how well a student  does in mathematics -
is a function of effort.

Have you ever heard a parent say, "My Jon is good at Math," and "My Samantha isn't, but
she's the creative one", at the age of four and five?  Or, have you ever heard a teacher share this kind of "observation" to a parent, sometimes in front of student, no less? 

We're  mixing up "strengths and interests" with "ability."   What gets lost in these conversations about our kids' strengths and abilities is EFFORT.   The message that they may be hearing is either you got it, or you don't . . .  so don't bother, if you don't.

"I think, part of the problem, are those parental attitudes.  . . ."

Koretz continues by saying that parents need to press -   "Press BY parents ON students" for "what really matters."   I'm not sure if this last quote just was a poor choice of words, making him sound like Tiger Mom with a "do as I say" approach, but I think he really meant that parents shouldn't peg their own kids as not being good in Math based upon the parent's OWN lack of interest or understanding in Math.   This further complicates things by giving their kids a "free pass" on effort (ie. I never understood it, so understand why you don't . . . ).

What do you think?

Above Previously Posted. Sepember 26, 2011

Related posts The Daily Riff:

Why Other Countries Do Better in Math

Why Our Kids Don't Get Math

The Unintended Consequences of Grading Effort by Joe Bower

  • Boonesar

    I am not sure this guy has ever opened an elementary school math book or tried helping a child with their math homework. A. First off he said nothing about how it's optional for a teacher to send a math book home with the student. Last year I had to beg and plead for a math book to come home with the math assignment. B. Second Good students come home from school with a math assignment and know little about how to do it. They ask the parent for help. The parent has no idea what way the math problems were taught on that day or in that grade level. The parents are required to teach their own children. If no book came home with the child, what do we do? Math is taught completely different then the way the parents learned it. Many of the methods are not even described in the book. 1+1 should equal 2 but many times it's estimating and the answer is about 2. But know where on the math homework does it say that we are suppose to be estimated. They learn how to reduce fractions before they have learned to multiply or divide. Parent know how they reduced fraction in High School but they have no idea how the teacher has taught them. C. There is very little communication from the teacher to the parent after grade 1. The teacher assumes that the child goes home and can teach the parent exactly how they learned it in class, and what they should be
    practicing. D. What grade does a child today memorize their multiplication tables. This does not refect on their grade. They can make it to 5th grade with an A in math by counting boxes, fingers, ect. Then when they learn to do long division all the parts are wrong. E. When a parent asks for a parent teacher conference. If your student is doing above a C you may be put on the back burner for students that need the teachers help more. D. After you child starts slipping in Math and you learn it on their report card and you call the teacher. I think the problem with learning math is that the parent is expected to be the one that teaches their child. A parent that hasn't worked a math problem without a calculator since 9th grade is expected to be the one teaching their own child without a book, without knowing how to teach it. I can have the most happy math attitude and sit down at the table to do math and it won't do any good if I have no idea what I should be teaching, how or why. It's our job as a parent to help the child with their homework, encourage and check. It should not be our job to teach. Take a look at how Japan's teachers teach their students. Sit inside a USA classroom then follow the student home to the homework table. Then lets see a new educated video worth watching.

  • CJWesterberg

    Your points are spot on (I've witnessed every one of your examples either as a parent, class observer or researcher). I'd like to think he was referring more to over-arching cultural attitudes about math and the quick pegging of students as "good at math" or not good at math - often labeled as being "creative" - as if the two don't intersect.
    To your point, however, it's pretty hard to model math enjoyment when the factors you outline are so apparent. Thanks for your comment.

  • Katie

    I agree with some of this, but I don't agree that effort on the student's part is the main factor in the ability to learn math. I believe that far more crucial is the attitude/concept of how difficult math is (as portrayed to kids by parents, teachers, and the world they live in) is far more important.

    Also far more important is a teacher who really can teach things in a variety of clear ways, and is willing/able to spend as much time with the student as necessary for them to UNDERSTAND the math skills. Too many teachers forget that all kids don't learn the same way, and too many teachers expect kids to have their own natural aptitude for math. (What adult without a natural aptitude for math would become a math teacher?)

    If the student doesn't have the first, then they'll never be able to summon the will-power to put the necessary effort into it.

    If the student doesn't have the second, then all of the great attitude and effort in the world won't do them a bit of good. And most kids do not have that kind of teacher. All they have is a book and a teacher who throws information at them and doesn't care if they didn't get it the first time, or if they don't understand it because they're missing skills from the year before.

    But if a child DOES have that kind of teacher, and their world has convinced them that they CAN master math, then there are very few who would not put forth the effort to do so...especially since most of math is not something that requires far more understanding than effort anyway.

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