Transforming the Culture of Math

This is the first in a 3-part series, published on NCTM’s Teaching Children Mathematics blog.

I’m just not a math person. How many of us have heard this phrase before? From our students? Fellow teachers and colleagues? To be honest, up until recently, I said that phrase about myself. In college, I was an English major – mostly because I have a passion for literature – but also because it meant that I only had to take one math class! At that time, I felt the only focus of math was to get the “correct answer” as quickly as possible, while following a prescribed set of rules and formulas. As a 5th grade teacher, I was always worried that my students would find out my little secret… I relied on the teacher’s manual to follow procedures and to get to the answer quickly. When I became an elementary school instructional coach, I was terrified to coach teachers in math, and I felt sure they would realize that I had no mathematical background. Last year, I decided it was time to face my anxiety and build my confidence. I focused my professional learning on math, and through conferences, workshops, and reading, my mathematical thinking and understanding have been transformed. I finally understood that math was not only about the answer… it is so much more than that, mathematics teaching & learning is about the beauty of patterns and the power of solutions to solve meaningful problems.

Focus & Plan

I know there are many other teachers like me who struggle teaching math, because they lack the confidence in their own math abilities. As I began planning professional learning opportunities for teachers this year, I wondered:

How can I help teachers see that math is much more than just procedures?

How can I help teachers understand that there are many ways to get to the solution of a problem?

How can I help teachers be brave enough to put down the teacher’s manual, and create rich mathematical tasks that inspire curiosity and creativity, promote collaboration, and deepen critical thinking?

I know this professional learning will require more than a presentation, and it’s not something that can be achieved in one session. It will require a sustained focus throughout the year, giving teachers the time and tools needed to solve rich mathematical problems, first-hand. Teachers will need the opportunity to work both independently and collaboratively, in a safe environment where they can share their thinking and engage in thoughtful discussion. Together, we will transform the culture of math teaching & learning.


To support teachers in this cultural shift, my school will be reading and discussing Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, by Ron Ritchhart.  In his introduction, Ritchhart shares that the ideal learning Cultures of Thinking Book Coverculture “produces the feelings, energy and even joy that can propel learning forward and motivate us to do what at times can be hard and challenging mental work.” This is the type of learning environment we should strive to achieve – for our students and for our teachers. This mindset will provide the foundation for us to transform the culture of math in our schools, proving that math is both engaging and creative. More importantly, all teachers will experience for themselves the power of understanding mathematics, and how it can be used to solve authentic problems. In follow-up blog posts, I will focus on Ron Ritchhart’s Eight Cultural Forces and Making Thinking Visible Routines, and how they can be used to transform your own mathematics classroom, as well as the culture of math at your school.

Truthfully, the main reason I chose to be an English major was because there are many different answers to the same question. An entire class period could be devoted to discussing one line of poetry, and every student might interpret it differently – and that’s has always been ok. Now I see, the same is true of math… an entire class period could be spent discussing one rich problem, and every student could solve it in a different way – and that’s ok.

How are you transforming the culture of math teaching & learning at your school this year?

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