Re-Examining Our Beliefs About Mathematics

Re-Examining Our Beliefs About Mathematics

A decade ago, I wrote about my ten misinformed beliefs about mathematics. These weren’t beliefs that I was told, but rather beliefs that I formed because of the way I learned math each day in the classroom.

  • Practice makes perfect.

I believed that getting better was related to the amount of practice I did and that math required long sets of practice, usually in the form of worksheets.

  • Mastering calculations is the ultimate goal of math.

I believed that memorizing procedures, algorithms and computations, were what math was all about.

  • Math is about getting the right answer.

I believed the important thing was getting the one right answer and doing it in the way I was told.

  • Math is a series of isolated skills.

I learned each topic as a chapter, took a test, and then moved to the next topic. I didn’t see the connections between math ideas.

  • You must know basic facts before you can learn to solve problems.

I believed that because word problems were always at the bottom of the page or at the end of the lesson, they were to be done after computations were mastered.

  • The first one finished wins.

Speed was valued and a part of many classroom tasks.

  • The best mathematicians calculate in their heads.

I believed that abstract thinking was more valued than drawing models or writing equations.

  • Teachers tell us how to do math.

I saw my job as sitting, listening, and practicing what I was told to do.

  • Math is done just in math class.

Worksheets of isolated facts filled the day rather than connections to life. Computations rarely had a context.

  • Some people are good at math and some are not.

I believed you were either a math person or you weren’t because some students just seemed to get it naturally and the ones who didn’t simply got mediocre or poor grades.


Consider all of the things you believed about mathematics. Do you still believe them? Does it make sense that I developed these beliefs about math based on how I experienced math as a student in a typical drill-and-practice classroom? Do you question any of these beliefs?

Before we begin to transform our math teaching, it’s helpful to reflect on our own beliefs and consider whether they should still drive our instructional decisions. If you have a positive view of math, hold on to it. If your past experiences have filled you with frustration, anxiety, or apathy about math, now is the time to get rid of those old fears and anxieties. The better you understand math and the more strategies you acquire, the quicker those old feelings will dissolve. Let’s not pass along negative views of math. It’s time to break that cycle. Let your students see your love of math. Let them see you take risks. Let them see you try and fail and still want to try again.

The teaching strategies we choose will form our students’ beliefs about mathematics. Will our students leave our classrooms thinking that math is all about speed and right answers, or will they have a different set of beliefs that embrace understanding, discovering, thinking, problem solving, and risk taking? Do we believe that our students can like math and succeed at math? Do we believe that math can be taught in a more effective way? Do we see the need for reflecting about the way we teach math and finding ways to make it better for our students? We recognize that modifying our teaching practices is likely to make us feel uncomfortable at times during the process, but do we believe that it is worth it to find ways to improve the elementary math experiences of our students? If so, then we are ready for the change.