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What’s with Middle School Mathematics?

Jeanne Lazzarini
Jeanne Lazzarini
August 15, 2021

“The Illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”

-- Alvin Toffler

What is it about Mathematics (including Middle School Math) that challenges teachers, parents, and students of all ages? Over the decades, approaches to learning mathematics change; some for the better, some not. Enter in the pandemic, racial and civil injustice, wild changes in weather across the world, distance learning, and other daily uncertainties!  No wonder everyone worries about the future of education. We live in strange times indeed!

But these are also times of great hope for effective change! 

Why is math so important?  And why bring up Middle School Mathematics in particular? What does Middle School Math have to do with real life?  

Just like a belt around your waist, math is all around you!

For starters, math is important on so many levels, not just for careers in STEAM fields! No matter what, math is an essential skill that carries over into many areas of life.  Check out these few examples:

  • I need to tip my hairdresser 15%.  What is 15% of $250?
  • I love to swim!  If one mile is 1,609.34 meters and my pool is 25 meters in one length, how many lengths do I need to swim 1 mile?
  • How do I convert a recipe from metric units (ml) to US Standard units (teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, etc.)?
  • If my recipe calls for 1 egg and 2 cups of flour, what is the ratio of eggs to flour if I triple the recipe?
  • My bedroom requires wallpaper on all four walls and the ceiling. How do I figure out how many yards of wallpaper I need?
  • I owe the cashier $14.84.  I hand the cashier $20. How much change should I receive?
  • I want to plant 4 tomato bushes in a plot 4 feet by 6 feet. The bushes must be spaced no closer than 18 inches apart from each other. Can I plant all of them in a row?

I could go on and on …. 

But why concentrate on Middle School Math?

It turns out Middle School is a pivotal, transitional time in a student’s life. When the math and cognitive problem-solving strategies they have learned in earlier grades carry into conceptional and abstract understanding of new math content, this can create emotional attitudes/connections towards math that last the rest of their lives.  Depending on the math connections they make in these middle school years, students either learn to love or to hate math.  

Yet, competency in middle school mathematics combined with real-world experiences, builds understanding and bridges to future success for the rest of their lives! Brain science says that anyone can learn math and understand how to reason and analyze data to seek solutions in a logical way -- a skill every citizen needs!

Math promotes cognitive brain tasks for learning, unlearning, and relearning when integrated with relevant technology, hands-on experiences, and teaching platforms (what is UDL?) that encourage student confidence, enjoyment, and engagement in their own learning. We must realize everyone can learn math, and that making mistakes, productive struggle, persistence and rigor, are helping students succeed in solving complex challenges that they need in the global future. 

Having middle school students find success in math at a young age can set them up for greater success when they go into the world of their future! Middle school Algebra and other higher-level math skills connect logic with abstract thinking and teach how to solve problems and look for solutions in real-life.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms”

-- Dr. Jo Boaler, 2015

Let’s face it: combinations of “in-class”, online, hybrid, and remote learning are here to stay! If we truly want to improve middle school math rigor in education for all students, we must promote changes that steer away from traditional timed tests, memorization, and speed. 

So what is mathematical rigor? 

What does mathematical rigor really mean and why is it so important?  It depends on who you talk to. According to the new educational standards, educators define mathematical rigor with reference to creativity, application, and non-routine problem solving. As a result, schools are finding they need to adjust from traditional classroom teaching methods which do not adequately prepare students to succeed on assessments and to solve the complex global challenges they will face in the future.

We need students to develop skills that allow them to progress at their own pace, to self-regulate, to persist and collaborate, and to receive real-time assessments that address knowledge and understanding of key math concept applications.    

How can we support middle school students in their mathematics learning? 

Here are some key ideas:

  • Get to know your students -- share your interests and learn about theirs. Connect math with those interests and more throughout the year.  
  • Make learning accessible for all students by reducing barriers to learning.
  • Share and offer a variety of activity resources to help each student in their own understanding. Include virtual and real-time hands-on explorations. 
  • Encourage learning from mistakes because failure can be productive too.
  • Encourage creativity by optimizing students’ ownership of their learning. 
  • Build conceptual learning through experiences that show how and why certain math concepts work.
  • Facilitate by allowing opportunities to apply concepts in different situations and contexts.

From my own experiences, having fun and building student confidence directly develops a love for learning (so needed today!).  I know that Middle School is an absolute essential time to allow voice and choice in student learning, and UDL, along with other learning platforms, encourages them to become motivated lifelong math learners!  All this promotes continual educational growth with positive greater success in real life! 

Want to find ways to improve Middle School mathematics with your students? Ideas abound in my new self-paced online Novak Education course “Math for All: Implementing UDL in the Middle School Math Classroom!”   

Make wishes come true! Spark the wonder of mathematics in all your students!      

--- Jeanne Lazzarini (a.k.a., the Math “Genie”). picture of a genie bottle

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