Transforming Math Education Requires a Concentrated Effort

In recent years, U.S. mathematics education has undergone a renaissance, emphasizing conceptual understanding and critical thinking over the bland mnemonics and procedures that used to characterize the subject.  Exemplary educators such as Marilyn Burns, Jo Boaler, and Greg Tang have spearheaded the movement, educating teachers to help more and more students see Math as a thinking, reasoning discipline.  Their efforts have been magnanimous, and mathematics education is better off because of them.

Still, a glaring aspect of learning the subject remains largely ignored in pedagogical discourse.  Curriculum quality, instructor competence, and lesson planning acuity are all insignificant without focused students.  Learning mathematics requires deep thinking and concentration, study habits that many students don’t practice, and some teachers don’t emphasize.  This can be blamed on poor work ethic, hyper-stimulating environments, or boring teachers, but regardless of the culprit - children who are unwilling or unable to concentrate extensively will always struggle to learn math.*

Teachers, of course, have little control over their students’ outside of school environment and habits.  They can, however, control their classroom’s physical setup and mode of instruction, both of which can drastically improve student concentration.

If we want our students to focus better, then we need to create learning environments that optimize concentration.  Seating configurations can play a major role in engaging or distracting students.  Circular carpet configurations work well with concrete lessons in which the order or alignment of objects doesn’t matter.  Frontal positioning helps students comfortably look at a board, and conference table seating is conducive to students working in groups of three or more.  Copious classroom decorations, cluttered boards, and uncomfortable seating all lead highly distractible students to disengage.

Once students are focused during math, it’s vital for them to actively participate.  Teachers play a prominent role in ensuring that this happens.  In addition to minimizing teacher talk, math lessons need to be designed so that all students experience effusive success and appropriate challenges.  The former builds confidence to try harder problems, while the latter stretches – without over-stretching – their understanding.

All students, especially shy and/or unwilling participants must become involved in lessons through informal assessments and stimulated partner discussions.  Choral responses and whole-class white board exchanges hold students accountable, while easing the stigmatization that comes with being called on.  Knowing that they’re in a safe, dynamic learning environment, students become more willing to embrace challenges and persevere.

In time, they learn to appreciate the euphoria and enlightenment that deep concentration brings.  Their mental endurance builds and their potential flourishes.

*Some educators feel that games, projects, and real-life applications are the solution to generating student enthusiasm for the subject.  While all three can help initial engagement at any grade level, attentiveness and perseverance are essential for mathematics learning to move beyond surface interest and understanding.