Mathematics can be tremendously rewarding. The experience of making a new connection, understanding an idea or overcoming a seemingly impossible barrier is inherently joy-filled. I love seeing children battling with the various emotions that arise when doing mathematics – including the excitement of a new discovery. However, learning mathematics can also be very uncomfortable. Therefore, I believe that it’s crucial to help children become literate in the emotional experience of mathematics. And I never tell children that ‘maths will be fun today.’ Here’s why…
When we engage in learning, our brain releases a cocktail of stress chemicals to heighten our level of alertness. This is great for learning but it means that, in terms of our brain chemistry, at the start of a learning experience we have to walk through a temporary ‘door of discomfort’. At this point, I don’t want children to think that they should be enjoying themselves. The joy of a new discovery usually comes on the far side of effort, repetitive practice and maybe after some confusion. It involves discomfort. I want children to recognise and value that discomfort. Notice what it feels like and reframe these moments as part of the learning process – a gateway to success. And, of course, enjoy the moments of breakthrough!
For children to enjoy maths, they certainly need to experience success – to know that effort leads to success. For example, my training explores how children can have high initial success in problem-solving. Where children don’t experience success, I try to explain their difficulties, for example ‘When you can easily recall your times tables, you will have more brain space free to think about the question.’ I always try to address ‘mathematical status differences’ in the class, for example recognising a moment when someone perseveres through a moment of challenge. And I try to be careful in what I celebrate, downplaying the importance of an answer and placing the emphasis on the process of the thinking.
Then, I love to give children the chance to express their understanding in ways that are unique to them. In my training, I like to explore how children can extend sequences of Small Difference Questions, create their own Rank by Difficulty examples or tweak How Many Ways? tasks to increase or decrease the number of possible answers. I think we all have a deep-held desire to be unique. This is a wonderful way to express that in mathematics. It’s a skill that takes training. It’s a hugely worthwhile investment to make.
Mathematics brings up a wide range of emotions. In helping children to recognise and understand the full spectrum of these feelings (and to persevere through them) I believe children will have more mathematical success. I also believe it will also help children to grow as emotionally literate people. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Which ideas resonate with you? What do you disagree with? And how do you help children to navigate the emotions of learning mathematics? All views are welcome!