Math Misconceptions Malady

Warning! This blog may not be suitable for students who don’t believe in themselves, teachers who lack vision, or anyone who views the cookie jar as half-empty.

Across the nation, math teachers and their students have been suffering from a highly contagious condition called m3, also known as Math Misconceptions Malady. This condition, which commonly impacts a student’s ability to successfully solve math problems and – gulp – like math, stems from years of misconceptions being formed by parents, students and even – bigger gulp – teachers.

While we have identified dozens of possible symptoms in teachers and students, scientists have identified the four most serious indications of m3 in the classroom. If they are caught early and are treated, however, we can easily eradicate this problem.

Symptom #(100-99):  “My students should already know how to…”

This first symptom is commonly seen in novice teachers, but has been observed in teachers of 10, 20, and 30 years! Teachers should never construct the preconceived notion that their students already know something. Math is a foundational subject; students must understand the basics and the vocabulary before you build upon it.

Treatment: Frequent and formative assessment. Make sure your students understand the language of math before using it explicitly to teach a new lesson.

Symptom #(1+1):  “I just need to put down an answer…I don’t need to show my work.”

Shame on the student who doesn’t show his work. Double shame on the teacher who doesn’t hold his students accountable to show their work.

Yes, students, don’t believe the misconception that the destination is more important than the journey. Teachers want to see the right answer, but we also want to see how you got there!

Imagine if a student writes down the incorrect answer (yes, this does happen from time to time). Without any work written down, you can’t tell if (a) the student made a mental error during practice or (b) the teacher made a mistake during instruction. Believe it or not, some mental errors are even caught and corrected when written down. Just saying.

Treatment: Teachers must require students to show their work. Students must stop being lazy.

Symptom #(27÷9):  “I don’t believe in timed math tests.”

For some school districts, timed tests have become taboo. They are viewed as a way to torture students historically ridden with anxiety and fear of failure. The misconception is that students shouldn’t feel pressured to produce; whereas, in the professional world we are encouraged to take our time and skip count on our fingers.

This symptom derives from another common ailment in education: ignorance. Timed tests don’t exist to torture students; rather, they simply train students to think quickly and commit basic math facts to memory.

Treatment: Think time. Are we expected to master spelling and reading before we know the letters of the alphabet? Of course not. Therefore, should we expect our students to master simplifying algebraic expressions or finding the circumference of a circle if they can’t fluently multiply two digits together?

Symptom #(22):  “I’m bad at math.”

This is the worst one and the most personal for me, for I was once afflicted with this symptom. In fact, I dealt with it for most of my educational life. This symptom has an incubation period of months – even years – and then one day, it erupts within you and becomes the only truth you know. Unless someone catches this silent killer, it can murder your self-esteem, motivation to do well, and all sense of accomplishment.

Treatment: First, do not allow the following words in the classroom: bad and stink (or any variation of the two), or can’t and unable (or their synonyms). Encourage questions to be asked. Take your time while teaching. And most importantly, take advantage of every opportunity to tell the students how great they are!


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