5 ways to create a strong math culture in your schools

Brenda Lynch, Retired Secondary Math Instructional Specialist, New Caney Independent School District

Brenda Lynch is a retired math specialist. She spent the last eight of her 40 year-career in education at New Caney Independent School District in Texas.

Picture this: a student enters your classroom, a negative attitude at the ready. They are distant during class, uninterested in engaging with the material, and their beliefs confirmed every time they get a question wrong – “I can’t do math.” How can teachers combat this belief?

The culture that schools foster through the messages, beliefs, and behaviors that educators promote can help create a positive attitude among students that leads to better math achievement. Furthermore, research suggests that having a positive attitude toward math can boost math achievement.

In my 40-year tenure, where I concluded my career as a math specialist at New Caney Independent School District (ISD), I employed the following five strategies to help educators foster a strong math culture that leads to greater success for their students.

1. Make math relevant.

Connecting math to the everyday world that students live in helps them understand the relevance of what they’re learning, which can be very motivating. In addition to driving engagement, this approach can also help students build confidence.

For instance, if a student who is a basketball fan knows that a player who’s six for 10 from the free throw line is a 60-percent free throw shooter, that student already understands the concept of percentages without even realizing it. This awareness might convince students that they can, indeed, succeed at math.

2. Develop a growth mindset.

Fostering a growth mindset, in which students believe their abilities can be developed through hard work, is critical to overcoming the myth that some people are just better at math than others.

At New Caney ISD, educators would develop this mindset by emphasizing the growth that students made on common assessments. We challenged students to get a few more questions right on the next assessment they took, and we celebrated this growth more than we celebrated earning As or Bs in class.

3. Integrate cumulative review.

Long-term success in math is dependent upon students’ ability to retain fundamental precursor skills because new concepts almost always build upon prior lessons. If students don’t commit this knowledge to their long-term memory, they won’t succeed—and their confidence will suffer.

The key to ensuring long-term math retention is to review prior content as students are learning new material. In the New Caney schools, we used a program called Get More Math to provide cumulative math practice that included a mix of new material as well as older skills and concepts—all tailored to each student’s needs.

Get More Math personalizes the review process for every student by determining exactly what practice they need, based on which problems they’ve gotten wrong before and which concepts they haven’t reviewed in a while. Teachers would build time into each class period for this spiraled review. At New Caney ISD, we set class time aside for students to work within Get More Math, and for teachers to provide additional, tailored support.

4. Have students keep a math journal.

When working with students one-on-one, our teachers would use scratch paper to demonstrate a problem-solving approach. However, if students still had questions about a particular problem or procedure the next day, they couldn’t refer back to the previous day’s work because it was in the trash or stuck in a backpack somewhere. Teachers were having to reteach skills, and that wasn’t practical or an efficient use of time every day. 

To solve this challenge, we started requiring students to keep a math notebook or journal with all of their problems from the course. That way, if students had a question, they could go back and refer to their previous work to find the answer. These notebooks helped students learn important study habits that contributed to their overall success in math.

5. Tap into students’ competitive spirit.

New Caney ISD also held competitions between schools to see which campus could answer the most questions correctly within Get More Math on the first try. The students loved the competitive nature of these contests, and they were highly motivated to succeed. 

With the help of these strategies, our schools developed a strong math culture that led to promising results. In fact, in my last year with the district, three of our four middle schools were recognized by the state of Texas as distinguished campuses in math—and the fourth received an overall distinguished award, in part, because of its math scores.

A strong math culture can help students develop positive habits and mindsets that improve their math competency. When students believe they can do math, and this belief is reinforced with a taste of success, there is no limit to what they can achieve.