Everyone Can Learn Math (Part 1)

A guest post about a magical math book is coming soon.  Julie Homenuik, an educator from Windsor, Ontario, wrote about her experience reading her daughter the book Everyone Can Learn Math  by Alice Aspinall. Aspinall was inspired by Jo Boaler’s growth mindset work. The term “growth mindset”, a belief that you can learn anything and that intelligence can grow, comes from the groundbreaking work of Carol Dweck who identified that everyone holds ideas about their own potential. You can find growth mindset research and resources on Boaler’s website (youcubed.com)

Julie begins her post about the picture book Everyone Can Learn Math with:

 In the world of math, nothing matters more than how we’ve been taught to feel about math. 

I have such strong feelings about this sentence that I was unable to contain them in a short introduction to Julie’s post.  So this PART 1 is a LONG introduction to her post which I will share next Monday as PART 2.

If I were to sum up my current goal as a math educator in a sentence it would be:

To nurture a productive disposition towards mathematics in my students.

A productive disposition refers to a tendency to see sense in mathematics, to perceive it as both useful and worthwhile, to believe that steady effort in learning mathematics pays off, and to see oneself as an effective learner and doer of mathematics (National Research Council, 2001).

However, in light of two videos I watched recently, I’ve realized that moving forward I need to do much better to align my teaching practice with this goal.

The first video follows a four year old hockey player miked by his dad who wondered what he was thinking/saying the ice.  

As you watch, what do you notice? What do you wonder? 

Some things I notice in the video.

  • He is trying. Often incredibly hard. “One, Two. One, Two.”
  • He cares about his success and is excited when he’s successful. “I’m doing it! I did it. I did it.”
  • He enjoys moments of silliness. Squirming like a snake on the ice. “I can crawl! Oh that’s good.”
  • He believes in himself. “Am I a good [scorer]?” Self answers: “Yeah I am.”
  • He gets excited when he sees friends. “My friend! My friend!!!!”
  • He wants to play.  “No one wants to play with me.”
  • He’s tired and wants to nap.
  • He wants to been seen. “I can do both feet,” he tells the coach.

Learning anything is difficult.  It’s exhausting. It is emotional. It takes perseverance. Learners get distracted, bored, frustrated. Learners want to be seen and supported. Learners are trying incredibly hard even when sometimes it looks like they aren’t.

As I listening to this child’s self talk, I wondered:

What does self-talk sound when students are learning mathematics? What does the self-talk sound like around the kitchen table doing math homework? How are children narrating their experiences in math classes and while studying?

Children’s self-talk is part of their disposition and interactions with teachers affect self-talk.

  • The first grader that was told “not to use her fingers” when calculating. What is she saying to herself as she hides her fingers under the desk?
  • The second grader who shares an invented strategy and is told that is not the way we are doing that problem.  What becomes of that idea once proudly shared?
  • The third grader that can’t complete the multiplication fact timed test fast enough  even though they get 100% on the facts they do complete. Does not fast enough become not smart enough?

Anne Lamott says “I’m every age I’ve ever been. And so are you.”

Students bring their experiences and dispositions towards math from math classes past into each new class. Prospective K-12 teachers will bring their K-college experiences into their own classes.  While we can’t mike children throughout their K-12 experiences, pretend we could. What would we hear? For teachers and parents helping with homework, what if we could hear inside children’s minds. What would we learn about our role in a child’s self talk?

I watched the second video after reading a beautiful blog post by Carl Oliver titled, My Biggest Current Hope for Math Education.  Carl reflects on his daughter learning to play the Peppa Pig theme song on her keyboard.  His hope for math education’s influenced by  Deborah Ball’s 2018 AERA talk.  In her talk, Ball explains how teaching is dense with discretionary spaces, or separate micro moments when a teacher has to decide how to react. Oliver explains:

In the talk she dissects a short clip of her teaching to illustrate the way she used her discretion to support the class seeing black girl brilliance…I’m hopeful that maybe the people in the research community and on twitter can start to create a conversation about students’ identities and how they can be validated as they are learning math.

Oliver shares :

Despite all that’s possible, my daughter’s future teacher’s discretion will determine what my daughter’s math class feels like. Maybe they will discern that Julianne’s silliness is disrupting the others and kick her out of class. Maybe the teacher will find a way to modify a lesson that affirms my daughter’s identity. The teacher’s discretion will have a great impact in a student feeling confident among their peers, and feeling confident as a mathematician. What’s scary is that it’s hard to know how it will affect the class. What’s even scarier is that the teacher may not know either. The use of discretion will be influenced by the implicit biases that the teacher may not even be aware that they hold.” [Emphasis added]

I echo Oliver’s suggestion to find the time to watch this clip of Deborah Ball’s AERA talk.  Ball implores us become aware of these moments, reflect on our inaction and action in these moments, and these interactions might mean for children.

After watching the video of Ball’s address, I asked myself: 

Are my teaching moves/decisions, my inaction and actions in the classroom/home, aligned with my belief that I want students feel competent, supported, brilliant, valued, heard, seen and appreciated?  

How am I holding and entering those spaces in ways that welcome, support, validate, and encourage children?

Am I affirming children’s identities? 


Am I measuring my students and my own children against the yard stick of how I was a math student?

I sense too often my answer is yes to this last question.   My students/children deserve better from me.  And I vow to do better.

So there’s my long introduction/reflection on the first line of Julie’s post. Tune in next Monday for Part 2 where Julie shares the math and the magic of Everyone Can Learn Math  by Alice Aspinall, a book with a growth mindset message.


Pi day is coming (3/14).  Looking for a way to celebrate? Share a math picture book like  The Greedy Triangle.

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