Mothering Maths

Menaka Raman is a mother to two boys, deeply interested in how they learn and whether they are having fun when they learn. 
“If my brain keeps on growing, will it explode out of my head?”
Last evening, I watched Jo Boaler’s video on Larry Ferlazzo’s great edublog The video was about how the brain grows when it makes mistakes. Jo Boaler is Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and is involved in promoting mathematics education reform and equitable mathematics classrooms. Watching it along with me were my two boys 7 and 4. The 4 year old was busy drawing a picture of a dinosaur dragon fighting Luke Skywalker, but I could see that every now and then something in the video caught his attention and he would pause to watch.
What I really wanted was for my 7 year old to watch the video. Since the start of grade 2 he has been struggling with certain math concepts, and because he struggles and is slow to understand them, he has decided that he ‘is not good at maths.’
I’ve written before about my own struggles with math and how that shaped much of my self image through school. However, back then, the solution was to mug answers, go for tuition and mug the answers or to suffer the ignominy of being told by your Math teacher to eat ‘Memory Plus’ tablets and then try mugging the answers.
My husband and I are fans of Carol Dweck, Brene Brown and Shaun Achor’s ideas on positive psychology . With all the information and resources we had at our hands, surely we could help change his perceptions of himself?
When he understands an idea in maths, all is well with the world. It’s all roses. Enter long division and then we are in tears and self recrimination. ‘I’m confused’ ‘Only 6 of us can’t do it in class, Everyone else can.’
So we watched the video. Boaler and her four students of mathematics at Stanford University convey 4 key messages through the video:
1. There is no such thing as smart or not smart
2. When you believe in yourself your brain works differently
3. Making mistakes is good as it helps your brain grown
4. It’s not important to be fast in maths, but it is important to think deeply and creatively
The video also highlighted great mathematicians like Field’s Prize medallist Maryam Mirzakhani who were told by teachers in school that she was not ‘good’ at math. Laurent Schwartz another great mathematical mind felt ‘stupid’ in school because he was a slow thinker.
These are messages that are essential to pass on to our children, and ones that must be reinforced constantly. However, I’m worried that those ideas will be demolished in school by teachers who are pressurised to finish ‘portions’ and show good test results.
But worst of all, I should first look at unloading my own baggage. With every thing I know and read, I still slip back in to habits shaped by my own schooling. Every morning, we do a quick maths drill in the lift down to the bus stop. Today it was multiplication. And when he paused at 8×3 and looked lost, I could feel the irritation rise and my eyes widen in a glare. He was staring at his shoes and he looked up at me, and I could see the worry in his eyes. I immediately soften my expression, smiled and told him the answer.
Sometimes it’s our own mindset we need to work on first before we try and help our children with theirs.