Transforming the Culture of Math

  • Transforming the Culture of Math

    By Jancey Clark, posted October 9, 2017 —

    I’m just not a math person.” How many of us have heard this phrase before? From our students? From parents? From fellow teachers and colleagues? To be honest, 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 had to take only 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. Then as a fifth-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 professional literature, my mathematical thinking and understanding have been transformed. I finally understand that math is not only about the answer—it is so much more than that. Mathematics teaching and learning is about the beauty of patterns and the power of solutions to solve meaningful problems.

    Focus and plan

    I know there are many other teachers just like me who struggle with teaching math because they lack the confidence in their own mathematical 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;

    •    understand that there are many ways to get to the solution of a problem; and

    •    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 is 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 opportunities 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 and learning.


    1. 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

    Truthfully, the main reason I chose to be an English major was because a single question can have many different answers. An entire class period could be devoted to discussing one line of poetry, and every student might interpret it differently—and that has always been OK. Now I see that 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 is OK, too.

    Your turn

    How are you transforming the culture of math teaching and learning at your school this year? Use the comment section below to share your ideas and plans for transforming the culture at your school, or join us on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM use the hashtag #TCMblog.


    2017_10_09_ClarkAuPicJancey Clark is an elementary school teacher and instructional coach, passionate about personalized learning for both students and teachers. In her current role as Elementary School Learning Coach at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (AIS-R), Jancey facilitates professional learning through workshops, coaching cycles, and team planning. As a member of the Near East South Asia (NESA) Council of Overseas Schools Mathematics Collaborative Core, Jancey helps develop and promote professional learning opportunities in mathematics for the NESA community. When she is not learning with colleagues at AIS-R, she enjoys sharing and reflecting on learning through Twitter (@jancey5) and her blog (EDventures in Coaching). 


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    Shayna Engelhardt - 9/11/2020 8:05:08 PM

    Hello, my name is Shayna Engelhardt and I am a senior at Wartburg College. I am studying Secondary Mathematics Education. I truly love the points that you made in this post as I feel that people will say "I'm just not a math person" from one bad experience they had in math or one step that was lost in translation. I also loved how you talked about English and said how you could spend one whole class period discussing one line of poetry. I was wondering, have you ever thought about the connections English and Math have? That line stuck out to me because I have seen in my field experience where a teacher spends a class period discussing a couple lines from a word problem. They did this because word problems typically give you necessary information to try and trick you. This was something that I thought connected with your statement about poetry as a teacher can spend quality time discussing the confusing factors which can in turn help a student be successful in their class.

    Megan Holmstrom - 10/17/2017 12:17:43 PM

    I was walking through our ES this morning (in K12 independent school) and saw "Chalk Talk" for math class! I was excited to hear the teacher uses Visible Thinking Routines in her work on a regular basis. To see the student thinking? AWESOME. [was hoping to share pictures here, but will do so via Twitter @jancey5 and @TCM_at_NCTM