Can confidence be taught? Of all the questions math teachers ask when thinking through ways to improve instruction, this one tends to be forgotten. But insecurity impedes quality instruction in most classrooms. Students convince themselves that they’re “not a math person” or they’re not smart enough. The smallest seed of that idea grows into a razor-sharp thorn bush.
These students may scrape by in the early days and rely on shaky, fragmented knowledge in higher grades. Even the most devoted middle school teacher may be at a loss when introducing algebra to a student with a weak grasp on the order of operations. For this teacher, the initial question rises with urgency: Can confidence be taught? At STEMscopes, we believe it can.
Practice makes perfect
Students who lack confidence have learning gaps. To develop their confidence, content from previous grades must be reviewed in some way—“in some way” being the key phrase. Teachers should not be expected to deliver entire lessons on topics that should’ve been covered in lower levels, but learning gaps make review unavoidable, especially in the post-pandemic days of learning loss.
Mixed reviews, which reprise old concepts relevant to the ones being introduced, can help fill academic holes. However, preparing mixed reviews in addition to other lessons can be burdensome. STEMscopes Math offers several tools designed to relieve that burden. “Accessing Prior Knowledge,” for example, is a feature that lives up to its name by providing a hands-on activity recapping past material students need to know to understand the new content they will see soon. Spiraled review is another STEMscopes Math tool you can use to review previous material. It provides an efficient way for teachers to review old content frequently.
You can also practice flexible grouping: Team up students in different ways (based on interest, skills, personalities, etc.) to work on activities together and support one another. Students can model each other’s thinking and problem-solve collectively. It has the added benefit of easing the pressure and boredom that students can feel while working alone.
Maintain high standards
It is natural to expect less from students who expect less from themselves. This temptation should be heartily resisted, though. Don’t dilute the problems. Instead, challenge students enough that they are forced to develop strong problem-solving skills. Allow them to get stuck and problem-solve their way out of the jam. When students are forced to slog through difficult problems they engage in productive struggle and develop grit. Indeed, productive struggle gets to the heart of math education—problem-solving. A successful math student is not one who can simply recite facts and figures quickly. There is, of course, a place for this (which is why STEMscopes Math has a “Fact Fluency” component), but we should strive to develop creative problem-solvers.
We want a generation of math students who possess technical finesse, and can sit with a problem, approaching it from different angles until they find something that works. They need both the mathematical knowledge and the stick-to-it-ness to solve some of the world’s most complicated problems. The challenging, real-world nature of the problems posed through our curriculum encourages just that.
It is also important to develop a safe classroom environment where making mistakes is normal, getting the wrong answer doesn’t mean you’re dumb, and creatively sharing approaches to problem-solving is celebrated. This can be achieved through the teacher’s manner of speaking, the way the classroom is decorated (e.g., the motivational sayings/posters on the wall), and in co-creating a behavior agreement with students in which principles like respect and open-mindedness are upheld.
Don’t silo subjects
Teachers tend to stick to their discipline. There usually isn’t much constructive dialogue between the art teacher and the math teacher. Or the French teacher and the physics teacher. We often operate as if we live on different planets, and time is short, so why should Mrs. Frizzle care that students are reading Moby Dick in English class down the hallway? What does cross-pollination have to do with the Great White Whale in literature, anyway?
But interdisciplinary collaboration is a missed opportunity. Math teachers can inject some flavor into their math lessons by incorporating content that students are doing in other classes, especially the reading-intensive ones. Why not compose word problems about Reconstruction or Romeo and Juliet? A little bit of teamwork between you and other teachers, especially non-STEM teachers, can go a long way.
STEMscopes Math even includes math-inspired art projects that help erode many of the preconceptions students have of math.
Confidence is an intangible quality. It can’t be quantified, and students will never be tested on it. But it is so critical to student success—in school, the professional world, and their personal life. So often, our deepest regrets could’ve been avoided if we had mustered more confidence. Years later, we may berate ourselves for not applying for that job or asking that person out or chasing an ambitious goal. In the math classroom, we can help students build the confidence they need to live with fewer regrets—and master math!