“I’m just not very good at math.” Have you ever heard a child or an adult say this? I imagine you have. It’s a comment that many children make. It’s also a comment that many parents and even teachers will say. 

Why is this? 

In 4th and 5th grade in schools across the country, we often see a great divide in the classroom in math – those who excel and those who don’t like it. Yes, even in Waldorf schools. 

Why? 

By middle school, we can hear students, particularly girls, say, “Math is hard. I can’t do this,” and “I’m not good at math.” This often continues into high school and even beyond. 

Why does this happen? 

And how can we shift this as teachers in the classroom? 

A few years ago, these questions arose once again for me as I started with a new class in 4th grade and observed the familiar pattern. 

I thought back to just a few years earlier, when I was teaching Waldorf class teachers how to teach mathematics in grades 1-3, and many of them shared their negative experiences with math as a child and the feeling of trepidation they had at the thought of teaching it even in new ways within Waldorf education. They still became anxious and thought they were “just not good in math.” 

Once again, I asked why? How did this develop in their childhood? And how can we make a shift in education today so this does not continue into the future? 

With a focus on these questions in mind, I soon discovered it wasn’t just teachers in training who felt this way about mathematics. I heard parents of children in my class share how they were “never good in math,” and therefore couldn’t help their child with anything math-related. 

A professor I knew at a local university said that she was teaching a basic mathematics course to freshman in undergraduate school at that time and most of them had had negative, even traumatic, experiences in learning math in school. As a result, a focus in the class needed to be on helping them to heal the trauma and shift from fear and anxiety to confidence and curiosity in mathematics. 

These thoughts and questions bounced around in my mind, piquing my curiosity. This was what began as a journey in exploring in greater depth how we teach mathematics and how children learn it, beyond what I already knew. 

I wondered, how can we make a shift in the classroom, so every child can access mathematics successfully and not enter adulthood with negativity around the subject? 

I’ve been on this journey of exploration for many years, conducting active research and piloting innovative methods in the teaching of mathematics for Waldorf classrooms in grades 1-5.

The Natural Mathematician

What I’ve learned is that there truly is a natural mathematician that lives within each one of us. I’ve seen it in first graders even before they’ve been taught how to add and subtract. I’ve seen it in children who are not the first to raise their hands in a 4th grade class. I’ve even seen it in children who think they are “not very good in math.” 

This natural mathematician is a powerful, living force within us. It comes to life with inner activity and outer exploration that bring to light the patterns and relationships in the world through numbers  – truly Living Mathematics.

So, how do we ignite this spark in each child, not just the ones who have an immediate connection to mathematics? But, also the ones that don’t seem drawn to mathematics right away? 

To begin, I think there’s one question we can ponder, as teachers, “Is it our work to explain mathematics to students or to awaken the natural mathematician within each one?”

Let me share more. 

When we teach mathematics, a common approach for teachers is to present a story problem or equation and then demonstrate how to solve it. Next, the students apply that procedure to similar practice problems with guided support, then eventually independently to achieve mastery. 

We explain mathematics to students. 

It’s a very common approach by teachers, in Waldorf schools and in other schools. We’ve all done it again and again, if we’ve taught math to students. 

But, guess what? 

The current research in the teaching of math shows that this is NOT a very effective approach for developing number sense and problem-solving skills nor confidence and resiliency in learners.

Ding-ding-ding. A bell rings. 

A light shines into the darkness. 

This was an AHA moment for me in my research! 

The way we typically teach new concepts in mathematics isn’t very effective in awakening this natural mathematician nor in building confidence in the subject. 

For those students who are drawn to mathematics, they still seem to be able to make the connections and build on what is an interest or strength for them. But for the students who struggle in learning math, we can see they often are the ones who have not developed a strong number sense, nor problem-solving skills, yet. And our typical method of teaching mathematics doesn’t exactly help them develop it either. 

It’s easier to see now how, over time, this could snowball for some children affecting their confidence and resiliency, leading them to believe they just “aren’t good at math.”

So, naturally, the next question arises – What is the best way to develop number sense and problem-solving skills and also build confidence and resiliency in learners?

And, by the way, “What is number sense exactly?” Of course, it’s having a “sense of numbers.” But what does that mean exactly and how can we, as teachers, help it to develop while building confidence and resiliency in learners in the classroom (particularly in those ones that don’t seem drawn to mathematics)? 

Onward, I moved to the next step on my journey. 

Discover more about number sense and how to effectively develop this in the classroom  in the upcoming article entitled, What is Number Sense Exactly?

Want to dive deeper into Living Mathematics in the classroom for grades 1-3, join my upcoming course here.