**I've Never Been a Mathlete, but I Am Mathletic**

by April Pendergast, Learning Specialist at Kent School

Recently I've had the great honor of being asked to coach some second-year employees of our school (though they are seasoned professionals in education) through their action-research project, which Kent requires of all second-year faculty members. This research project is one of the things that stands out to me as the most valuable experience Kent can offer its community members: a chance for faculty to embrace and model growth mindset in shared inquiry, to experiment, and to hone their craft, whatever that may be.

One teacher I am working with, who has taught middle school through college, is currently facing some challenging experiences in one of the mathematics classes she teaches. "What I'm seeing," she told me one day over lunch, "is that they get the math right. They just don't understand the question, the goal of the problem, or the vocabulary. It's word problems, and they can't really read them."

This echoes something in *Treating Math Anxiety* by Dr. Aditya Nagrath (which, as an aside, is one of the most nicely specific books about how to instill growth mindset I've read). He states, "Not knowing how best to communicate their anxieties and misunderstandings, children turn to memorization strategies and processes to attempt to get through the materials" (30). This schematic approach to math is one of those strategies that "works until it doesn't." When kids know what to do and how to do it, but don't know why they are doing it -- what the numbers mean, essentially -- then we are teaching grammar with no language. A teacher can explain the "what" of as many example problems as they want, but if a student doesn't understand the "why," then they will never really be learning what the teacher is seeking.

Worryingly, "Students who do not understand the teacher at the classroom level do not tend to 'catch up'" (Nagrath 30). We can't remediate by "going over the same materials but slower" (31), rehashing the schema of the mathematics problem at hand, when the root of the misunderstanding is the fundamental heuristic of the language of mathematics (see "Solving Algebraic Word Problems Using General Heuristics Instruction" by Bradley Witzel amd JontÃ© A. Myers). The challenge, then, is for us learning specialists, especially those who, like me, are not extremely math-literate, to flex their fluid reasoning and try to understand why the mathematical processes that their students are working with operate the way they do. That usually means going a step back from wherever the student is right now in their work to the previous unit, and having the student explain why the previous concepts worked the way they did. The more a student can explain the logic of known mathematical concepts, the more they will empower themselves to work through the logic of newer mathematical concepts. In the same way coaching a student in writing requires them to articulate their logic, they must also do so with their mathematics work.

While I, admittedly not a mathlete, cannot correct students where they go wrong in a mathematical explanation, I can, as someone who is mathletic, notice when they falter or are unsure in their explanations and tell them to circle that bit to a) go back to the parts they do understand and see if any analogous logic fits, b) ask their teacher or a trusted other person to explain the schema to them, or c) watch a helpful YouTube video that describes the schema.

One nice analogy Dr. Nagrath mentions in *Treating Mathematics Anxiety* is to treat learning math just like coaching basketball. The coach never shoots the ball for the player, the player just tries again and again. When the player misses many shots in a row, the coach may step in to correct the technique, and once the technique is corrected, the player is still not expected to make 100% of their future shots. The same is true for mathematics practice -- they will not ace 100% of the problems they face, even when they understand both the heuristic and the schema. Lifting that expectation students have of themselves can go a long way to rebuilding their grit when encountering math problems.