Why Normalizing Struggle Can Create a Better Math Experience for Kids

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 (Courtesy Dan Finkel)

Math educator Dan Finkel grew up doing math with ease and completed calculus as a freshman in high school. But it wasn't until he went to math summer camp and learned how to think like a mathematician that he truly fell in love with math. It helps to have a positive relationship with math because when people are uncomfortable with it they are susceptible to manipulation. (Think of predatory lending interest rates, convenient statistics to support a thin argument, graphs that misrepresent the truth.)

“When we’re not comfortable with math, we don't question the authority of numbers,” said Finkel in his TEDx Talk, “Five ways to share math with kids.”

He is also a founder of Math for Love which provides professional development, curriculum and math games. He says math can be alienating for kids, but if they had more opportunities for mathematical thinking, they could have a deeper, more connected understanding of their world.

A more typical math class is about finding the answers, but Finkel says to consider starting with a question and opening up a line of inquiry. For example, he might show a display of numbered circles and ask students, "What's going on with the colors?"


He says it’s important to give people time to work through their thinking and to struggle. Not only do people learn through struggle, but puzzling through a tricky math problem resets expectations about how much time a math problem takes.

“It’s not uncommon for students to graduate from high school believing that every math problem can be solved in 30 seconds or less. And if they don’t know the answer, they're just not a math person. This is a failure of education," Finkel said.

He also said parents or educators can support a child when she is struggling through a problem by framing it as an adventure to be worked through together.

"Teach them that not knowing is not failure. It’s the first step to understanding."