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Dear Mitch,

Our daughter Lucy is in the eighth grade and is doing fairly well in all subjects except math. Her teacher doesn't have an explanation and says that Lucy seems to understand each new concept presented in class. As teachers and schools go, we usually consider ourselves very lucky because it is a small private school where everyone knows everyone else and the teachers try to create a comfortable learning environment. At home, we also do all that we can to assure that homework time is as stress-free as possible. We have two daughters, and for both we are consistent in holding to the philosophy that as long as each child tries to do her best and maintains a positive attitude, that is the hallmark of a successful approach. This is not to say we don't believe in high standards, and the girls know that just 'banging out' the homework in fifteen or twenty minutes is not a sufficient amount of effort.  We generally require AT LEAST an hour of homework from each child before allowing them to turn on the television or socialize with their friends on the computers. Our older one, Lucy, also is expected every week to take one of the two weekend mornings and spend two hours reviewing her week's math as well as try some of the new problems we select together from a group of books that have been recommended to us.

It all seemed to us like the kind of plan that could work, and, quite frankly we still don't understand why it hasn't worked. So, finally, after reading an article about "math anxiety" we wondered if we were putting too much pressure on her to succeed in the one subject she just doesn't seem to 'get'. So we began making a conscious effort to assure her that our love for her does not depend on whether she gets an answer right or wrong, and what's important is just that she keep at it and does the best she can and maintain an open attitude. That way, we figure, with enough practice, eventually the subject is bound to clear up for her. After all, we've had her assessed several times over the years for various things and after each of those meetings we were told we need not fear making her over-anxious. If anything, the comments we get are that she is perfectly comfortable learning, even when she doesn't arrive at the correct answer.

Honestly, we're perplexed. Recognizing it's difficult to figure out what might be causing a particular individual's challenge in one and only one subject, particularly without ever meeting the girl and assessing her yourself, do you have any thoughts we might've missed or, does it seem like we're unintentionally doing something wrong?

Oh, one last thing: Recently we were passing through her school to hand in a form for a field trip and came upon the door to her math class. As it happened, that class was in session and we couldn't help ourselves from peaking through the glass part of the door. We only stood there a couple of minutes, but we did get to see her try a problem presented on the board. The whole class was working on it, and so they were too focused to see us. Well, our daughter raised her hand to volunteer her answer, but alas, it was not quite right. Still, though, we noticed she seemed unashamed and unfazed and just continued right along taking notes on how to get it correct next time. In fact, I was impressed to see that her smile never even dimmed.

Okay, now, anything we could be doing differently?

Sincerely,

Loving but frustrated parents.

Answer

 Dear Loving Parents,

Almost never is it a good idea for someone to 'diagnose' problems in a question & answer forum such as this one, because everyone is different.   The situation you present is unquestionably the type that has to be 'seen' by the person doing the assessment. Among all the responsibilities that fell within my bailiwick when I directed a math program and designed the curriculum and materials for a k-12 school, one of the ones I found most rewarding was assessing students to see why they were having the specific or general challenges they faced in one or more areas of academics. (I began, of course, with the notion that my role was to keep the discussion, questions, and puzzles within the field of mathematics, but soon learned that it was often impossible to get to the route of the problem by staying within the artificial constraints of any particular 'subject'. Occasionally, for example, a truly natural math thinker was perplexed by certain types of word problems, and in the course of twenty minutes one could home in on the fact that the challenge was in the reading, not with any of the analytical aspects. And you can appreciate the magnitude of a situation like that for a young person who is in a school that teaches only in his second or third language!

And to make this whole discussion even less guaranteed to help you with Lucy, I must tell you that one of the reasons I appreciated the nuances in conducting a fine assessment is that I discovered early on that – contrary to what most of the journal articles on the subject would have the reader believe – the whole process is less of a science than an art. I say that for a number of reasons, each of whose details would make this response inappropriately long and tedious, but one issue that arises is this: two students can appear to have the exact same learning difference (which until recently was called 'learning difficulty'), yet require completely different types of remediation to address along their way to success. A child's personality and affect are major components that the paper and pencil part of the assessment cannot get down, and I quickly realized that the assessment does not begin when the pencil is picked up or even when the child begins to answer a few oral questions about how his morning is going. No, an astute assessment begins when the child says hello and shakes hands (or says nothing and refuses to take part in a seemingly simple handshake). And that, unfortunately, is why it is very difficult to teach assessment. There are hundreds of books used by thousands of 'experts' who tend to charge healthy fees, but after all is said and done, it comes down to a person making a judgment and recommendations about how to address the matter to maximize the likelihood of future success. Then (and this is often the most difficult part) comes the presentation of all the pieces of the determination and plan to the parents or guardian, and unless this final part is done with the grace of an angel, nothing will be implemented and the child will not get the assistance he needs. Every word has to be chosen carefully, because parents, like everyone else, have their egos to protect and their pride, and it takes great care to find a way to communicate facts that some parents are not ready to accept – or not ready to accept from the person delivering those facts/opinions.

Back to Lucy:

With all that said about the foolhardiness of 'diagnosing' a complicated issue over the Internet in a question & answer forum like this one, I am going to make an exception and take a stab.

Why?

Because even though, as I said, everyone is different, occasionally one comes across two or more students who seem to evidence a strikingly similar set of complications in their learning process.

While reading your question, I could not stop myself from picturing a student and her family I had the pleasure of knowing just a few short years ago. The girl, also in eighth grade in a small, nurturing private school where a high importance was placed on the students' learning in as stress-free a manner as possible, also excelled in all subjects except math. There was no detectable reason for her challenge in this subject, as all pen-and-paper tests showed she had all the underlying capabilities that one needs to learn math. I suspect your daughter has the capabilities as well, or her teacher would have spotted it by now. That girl's parents had the same gentle, loving, nurturing style you and your husband seem to indicate, and they too feared "math anxiety".

Here is what I believe is an important and misunderstood aspect of many types of learning: Anxiety, like all other emotions, is not a simple yes/no thing; rather, there is a spectrum, and each person seems to have his or her own natural default spot along that spectrum. But when walking through the jungle and a tiger jumps out in front of that person and bares his teeth, the individual's anxiety level increases. For some, it shoots way up to the point where they freeze and become paralyzed with fear and cannot protect themselves. For others, it causes them to think faster and faster and faster until coming up with something they can at least try before giving up.

There is an appropriate amount of anxiety for given situations; that is an evolutionary fact of survival – both for individuals and for an entire species. The person confronted with the tiger who finds the furry stripes so pretty that he reaches out to pet them does not possess an appropriate (or helpful) amount of anxiety. Likewise, when I work with a student for an important standardized test, most commonly the Sat exam, I find myself less concerned for the ones who know enough to be a little nervous than the ones who go in to the exam like it's no different from a Saturday morning cartoon which he'll 'ACE'. Anxiety is a form of energy and is sometimes necessary and can be used to help students get motivated and focus.

The girl I referred to who I worked with at the school was what could in this context be called, 'over-loved'. Now, of course, there is no such thing as loving one's child too much; absolutely no such thing. But there needs to be a distinction made: While the parent will love the child equally and fully regardless of whether she gets a math problem correct or incorrect, and although getting an correct answer does not make a person into a better individual than the peer sitting next to him with the incorrect answer, a correct answer is more desirable. It is more useful.  It is better than the incorrect answer.

This is a very challenging subject to bring up and enforce in a small private school where the emphasis is on nurturing and making all students feel strong and empowered and not unnecessarily criticized. With math, fortunately or unfortunately, there are still answers that are correct and answers that are incorrect, and the goal is to learn and practice methods and develop understandings that will increase the likelihood of correct solutions to problems and decrease the number of incorrect ones.

 

The girl I observed from the back of the class, like your daughter, had a remarkably even temperament, regardless of whether she was correct or incorrect. One could not tell from her face which ones she got right and which ones she did not. Other students in the same room could be 'read'. The slight sting of being wrong showed on their faces, albeit briefly, and the quick spark of pride from being correct also showed, a sort of twinkle in the eye. Since the girl I studied did not feel any different when her answer was correct from the way she felt when it was not, a large part of her motivation to learn was unavailable to her. It is a source of energy she had not tapped into.

There is a remarkably quick solution I can give you. Though is not complete, I think it will give you an idea of how you might begin to address the problem effectively and efficiently:

Immediately, stop requiring your daughter to study math in her room fora  two hour block every weekend. That approach shows her that the great value revolves around the amount of time and effort devoted to the subject. That often works, but it is not proving to be helpful in Lucy's case, so it is time to try a different approach.

She needs to learn that the value is in getting the problems correct, not in doing a lot of them or rereading them until no one could possibly find them interesting. INSTEAD of the TWO HOUR ROUTINE, CONTINUE TO REQUIRE HER TO TAKE ONE MORNING OF EACH WEEKEND TO WORK ALONE IN HER ROOM ON MATH BUT, WITH NO TIME CONSTRAINTS. GIVE HER A CERTAIN NUMBER OF PROBLEMS, IDEALLY AS FEW AS POSSIBLE IN THE BEGINNING, AND TELL HER IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW LONG THEY TAKE HER, BECAUSE WHEN THEY ARE FINISHED AND SHE HAS CHECKED HER ANSWERS WITH YOU, SHE IS DONE FOR THE DAY.

IF SHE COMPLETES THE DAY'S WORK IN SEVEN MINUTES,            

                               CONGRATULATIONS!!

GIVE HER A BIG HUG. IT IS A FAR MORE PRODUCTIVE AND EXCITING USE OF HER TIME THAN TWO HOURS OF MAKING FLASHCARDS WHICH SHE WON'T REMEMBER BY LUNCHTIME.

HOWEVER, IT IS IMPORTANT TO CAP IT OFF AT SOME POINT; IT SHOULD RARELY – IF EVER-- LAST MORE THAN THE TWO HOURS SHE WAS USED TO. BEGIN WITH PROBLEMS THAT YOU KNOW SHE CAN DO AND CONSIDER TWO OUT OF FIVE TO BE THE BIG SUCCESS. THEN THREE OUT OF FIVE THE FOLLOWING WEEK, AND THEN GRADUALLY STEP THINGS UP TO GRADE LEVEL, LEAVING HER ALL THE AVAILABLE TEACHING BOOKS AND WORKBOOKS YOU HAVE AROUND. IF SHE CALLS OUT FOR HELP, BE AVAILABLE AND HELP HER. THEN FOLLOW IT UP WITH THE SAME TYPE OF PROBLEM BUT SUBSTITUTING SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT NUMBERS TO HAVE HER PRACTICE FOLLOWING ALONG.

SHE WILL SEE THAT THE GOAL IS TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, NOT JUST SPEND TIME WITH HER MATH BOOK. AND, HOPEFULLY, THE STING OF A WRONG ANSWER WILL REEMERGE, BUT THIS TIME AS A POSITIVE MOTIVATOR TO GO BACK THROUGH THE PROBLEM AND LOCATE THE ERROR.

Try it. It worked in the other case. If not, just let me know and we'll come up with something completely different to try.

Hope this helps,

Mitch