How do you work with students who think they aren't good at maths? A conversation with Eddie Woo

This video was originally published 2 August 2017.

Eddie Woo chats to CESE about maths, teaching and what works best. Listen to the full conversation.

Eddie Woo explains how he works with students who think they aren't good at maths

I think I’d probably point to two particular things that I’ve felt are the real bread and butter that if you’re missing these things then you’ve almost got no chance at really reaching out and connecting with someone who views themselves as a so-called ‘non-maths’ student.
The first thing is something that you’ve just alluded to, which is people don’t start out having an aversion to mathematics. You don’t have to teach a kid that it’s fun to count, you know? I know someone, again this is a quote, I can’t remember where it comes from, but ‘music is the joy that our soul feels when it’s counting and doesn’t know that it’s counting’. And so I think that there’s something deep in our DNA that resonates with us, but where we start to get that negative attitude is where we realise oh, I can’t do this, I find this hard, it’s discouraging getting bad results, and that kind of thing, and I feel like I have no access to the help that I need. So the first thing is coming back to that point where, you were on the wagon once upon a time, where did you fall off? Let’s go back to there. Because it’s really an exercise in frustration to try and build from your current position, you’re a Year 10 student, you’re meant to be learning this Year 10 maths, if from primary school you never really got past, okay, how do fractions and counting numbers actually relate to each other? Well everything else is going to flow from that. So I think firstly, going back to whichever point it is, and that’s challenging, you know?
Remediation has always been a problem in schools because our syllabus sort of has this drumbeat march to it, where it’s like, well you’ve got to move on, you know, because we have a responsibility to make sure we hit every single syllabus dot point. I think that that is true, but at the same time, if you are teaching something but students aren’t learning it, then I think that that’s really a pointless exercise. So coming back to students’ knowledge, where they have an established set of skills, is the first point where you think, okay, if success is the first ingredient of engagement, I need you to feel that you’re getting this and that you can do this, let’s build from there.
The second major thing is making sure students feel that they have the opportunity to ask questions. Again, this is a problem that somewhat rises up from the fact that a mathematics classroom, particularly in a secondary context, is often a streamed classroom, and there’s a lot of research that’s been done both for and against having ranked or ability groups within a class, or the classes themselves. I think that one of the problems with doing that is that you can very quickly find yourself in a class where everyone else around you just seems to be working at the same pace, and it’s not yours. Something has gone wrong, you’ve had some absence or you’ve come in from some other school or some other jurisdiction, and you’re just not really understanding what’s going on, but everyone else seems to be understanding everything fine.
 In that kind of environment, it’s very difficult to put your hand up and say ‘uh, I don’t really understand what’s going on, this concept isn’t really connecting with me, can I get a bit of help?’ So it’s really important to connect with students who’ve had a negative experience by helping them see, oh, help is accessible, help is available and it’s not going to make me feel stupid for asking a question.
I don’t think anyone has anything against numbers or patterns or shapes. I think people don’t like feeling dumb, and if the way they learn mathematics gives them that experience, then that’s where that negativity develops. So connecting back to prior knowledge, providing access to an easy place where they can ask questions and get answers that make sense to them, and different perspectives on the same question because the first way and the second way didn’t connect, those I feel are the keys.


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