A student once came to me because, like so many students I meet, she was struggling with math. Her situation was more pronounced than most, but the general story was actually quite familiar to me: She was a bright girl who was struggling mightily in math, getting a string of D's and F's on her tests.
When something doesn't match up between a student's intelligence and his or her grades, it is usually due one of two things. The most common is disengagement. The student is bright enough, but lacks the motivation to follow through. I have come to see the ability to motivate oneself not as something that "lazy" kids simply fail to do, but rather as a skill that we all must learn at some point. I don't get mad at kids when they don't understand certain math concepts. I teach the confusing concept to them as clearly as possible. In a similar vein, when I see students struggling with motivation I simply work with them on learning to apply themselves more fully. But that wasn't this student's primary issue. There was something else in the way.
I knew this because this student was one of the deepest thinking, most philosophical students I had ever met. During our first session she talked passionately about her frustration with some of her classmates' views on issues of racism and sexism, for example. And yet she was struggling with medium level difficulty math. She was interested in politics and poetry and Eastern philosophy, but was basically failing Algebra 2.
I didn't know what the missing piece was at first, so I just started in on the content with her, breaking down each concept into as digestible pieces as possible so she could (hopefully) internalize it more easily. But I could see that something wasn't working. Usually, breaking complex concepts down in this way is enough when some baseline level of motivation is there. But in this case that was not so.
As I got further into the math with this student, I started to see that her real problem was that she was struggling to make meaning out of her math, on two levels. The first level was the more mundane. Rather than really understanding her math she was attempting to get through it using a purely rote approach. For example, during this first session, she was expected to learn how to do problems involving compound interest. She was struggling because rather than understanding what compound interest was, she was simply trying to remember a bunch of odd looking formulas. Without understanding what compound interest even was, how could she possibly know when to use which formula?
The other level on which she was struggling with meaning was more, well, existential. She, like so many frustrated students, didn't see the point of it all. This wasn't just about asking What is compound interest? It was also about addressing the deeper question of Who cares about compound interest anyway?
Rather than telling her about all the practical applications of compound interest (which she wouldn't have found satisfying anyway), I talked to her about meaning. Because this students was particularly philosophical in nature, I told her about the book Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In the book, Frankl relates how he survived the Holocaust, first at Auschwitz and later in Dachau, by figuring out how to make meaning out of the seemingly meaningless existence he repeatedly encountered. Those that couldn't make some kind of meaning out of their experience did not tend to find the will to survive.
The following week, during my second session with this student, I continued to emphasize the importance of her making meaning out of her math. In practice, this reminder had to do with school. However, because we had taken the time to explore the concept of meaning in a deeper way, when she returned to focusing on the math this notion of meaning held more meaning itself. As I worked with this student, I repeatedly emphasized the importance of letting go rote strategies and challenged her to make meaning out of each and every problem she encountered.
This approach, of course, took more work, so she was understandably resistant to it at first. Why should she expend more energy on something that she didn't care about in the first place? Helping her shift her focus from learning math for its own sake, to focusing on transforming her relationship with something difficult helped answer this question. But another, even more practical answer was that making meaning out of the math would make her more successful at it. She didn't have to change her approach once and for all. I just needed her to put in the effort to make meaning out of one problem. And then the next. And then the next. After she got each successive problem right, the small but important experience of competence would help justify the extra effort on the next problem. My job was to keep reminding her that her effort led to that satisfying result. At the end of our session, I urged her to continue to make meaning out of her math during the coming week.
When this student came in for her third session, I was blown away to learn that she had had a complete turn around. She had very much taken my advice to heart and worked hard in class to make meaning out of her math. After a string of D's and F's on tests, she brought in a near perfect score on her most recent test. I was both pleasantly surprised and impressed. She was beaming.
Not every student I work with goes from F's to A's in three weeks. But many students do struggle because they fail to make meaning out of math, or out of any subject for that matter. They get caught up trying to satisfy the demands of their teachers, or just wanting to get through their homework as fast as possible, or they simply don't understand the importance that making meaning holds. From my perspective, much of the responsibility for this falls on us educators. We have a responsibility to teach not only what to learn, but how to learn. Attempting to memorize and apply meaningless formulas on tests is not only a doomed strategy, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what math is and how to be successful at it. The fact that so many students demonstrate this same misunderstanding means we are letting too many of them down. The good news is that when we teach students how to make meaning out of their work in school, we can also change how successful they will be with it.