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This is Your Brain on Math
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photo from Stanford Medicine News

Photo Credit: Stanford Medicine News

By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach


Wildwood Division One math teacher, Drew Brody, is helping 6th graders change their minds—literally—about their mathematical abilities.


Strong or weak, confident or reluctant—students have various descriptions of themselves as math learners.


quoteblock_1Mr. B., as he’s known to students, understands how those self-perceptions work on many levels, and wants kids to leave class each day with this takeaway: Everyone can develop the skills and abilities to be successful math students.


On a recent visit to class, I hear students discuss the value of making mistakes. Reviewing the previous night’s homework, 6th grader Bronte B. reflects to her class, “Getting stuck on a problem is the best thing you can do for your brain; when you think about what you’re doing wrong and learn from it, your brain actually grows.”


quoteblock_2Bronte is right; she’s adeptly employing the Habit of Evidence, as Drew has helped all students verse themselves in the latest research on learning and the brain—with a view toward using it to help them develop a positive math mindset.


In this case, Bronte cites the work of Stanford University Professor, Jo Boaler. Struggling and thinking hard when doing math, Boaler has found, causes synapses in our brain to fire, helping to build and support new neural pathways.


This applied brain research is unlocking the way that we’re understanding how we learn and develop what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset—which, when deployed, can actually change the brain’s structure to increase academic achievement.


In Wildwood’s 6th grade math classes, Drew translates this and other research into practice.

(l to r) Leily K., Ruby B., Chloe B., and Bronte B. collaborate on a math demo

(l to r) Leily K., Ruby B., Chloe B., and Bronte B. collaborate on a math demo


He emphasizes depth of learning over quantity of problems and speed of mathematical calculation.  (Hint: Some of the world’s greatest mathematical thinkers were very slow processors.) In fact, the first unit of study this year in Division One math is titled, “How the Brain Learns Mathematics.” It’s based partly on Boaler’s free online Stanford MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), How to Learn Math, and is a required source for Wildwood 6th graders. <Click HERE to check out Boaler’s online Stanford course for yourself.>


Even a visit to class on a day that students take a demo (i.e., quiz) reveals the connection between research and classroom practice.


When students enter the room on a recent Monday, Drew revealed a pop demo in four parts.  Prior to completing the first part, Drew challenged students to “remember what Dr. Treisman said about the secret to success at UC Berkeley.” While Drew’s students clearly understand the context—I need them to fill me in. The translation: students can complete Part I of the demo collaborating with their table mates. And Dr. Uri Treisman, I find out, is a mathematics professor and Executive Director at the prestigious Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas who has conducted seminal research on practices that lead to student success with math.


The research relevant to these 6th graders is work Dr. Treisman began while at UC Berkeley, revealing the benefit of student collaboration in an environment of high expectations to individual students’ success in mathematics. These conditions contribute to students developing a trait that Dr. Treisman called “productive persistence,” encouraging the re-wiring of new neural pathways reflective of a growth mindset.


I listen in to the power of this practice as a table group of students confer before completing Part I. Samantha B. cautions her tablemates, “First, let’s make sure that we re-check our answers together before we turn this in.” Eliana B. concurs: “Let’s make sure that we have everything in order.”


Drew Brody helps students clarify their understanding by asking questions

As they turn in Part I, Drew provides his students a small reward: a mini-sized square of chocolate. It’s intended, only partly tongue and cheek, to help them on Parts II & III, which they’ll complete independently. “Remember,” Drew announces, “research shows the anti-oxidants in chocolate can help your brain with those calculations.”


Drew’s students are exposed to an approach to learning that many progressive math educators have practiced intuitively for years, now supported by a growing body of university research.


Wildwood welcomes this approach because it’s aligned with the way students’ brains work—and it’s effectively challenging traditional views on mathematics educational practice, now evolving in the face of evidence.


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