This past summer, the U.S. Math Olympiad team won the international high school competition for the second year in a row—a feat never before achieved by the team.
Po-Shen Loh is the coach that helped get them there. The math professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has worked with the team for the past decade.
At work or at home (Loh has three kids between 2 and 10 years of age), Loh thinks students of any age can develop an appreciation for math.
Here are 6 tips from Loh on how you can help elementary students develop a math growth mindset:
1. Make it relevant
Kids respond better and are more engaged when working with information they’re familiar with or see in their everyday environment, says Loh. For example, using a football field to explain patterns, or the size of a firework burst to explain relative distance. “You need to relate it to something the kids care about,” he says.
2. Challenge negative or gender-based perceptions about math
Math gets a bad rep a lot of the time. There’s a perception that it’s okay to say, “math is uncool,” says Loh. But you wouldn’t say the same thing about other subjects.
We need to encourage students that “math and science are interesting and worth learning,” says Loh. And share positive examples of STEM careers in the real world.
Encouraging all students to pursue math can also help overturn the notion that math ability is somehow associated with gender. “Girls can absolutely be as good as boys at math,” Loh says.
3. Be a math cheerleader
Loh sees himself more as the lead cheerleader rather than head coach of the Olympiad Team. “I try to give the kids lots of encouragement because you don’t want to turn them off,” says Loh. He also strongly believes that it’s important to get across the message that no one is bad at math, and that anyone who wants to get better at it can do so.
Teachers can also help students to recognize and appreciate the beauty of mathematics. Our role is similar to that of an art teacher explaining the significance of a painting, or a music teacher illuminating what’s remarkable about a symphony. “Math can help us find reason in the world around us,” Loh says. “It’s not just about solving a set of problems.”
4. Allow time to think
When he gives his students a problem, Loh encourages them to sit and think about it for 15 minutes. “So much emphasis is on doing things fast,” says Loh, “but we don’t take the time to just stop and think.”
5. Practice, practice, practice
Like so many other subjects, practice is the key to success. “The more you practice math, the better you’d be at it,” says Loh.
6. Get parents engaged
Parents are your allies. They don’t necessarily have to be good at math themselves to help their kids excel—they just need to be excited about learning it. “When a parent goes, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ kids sense that excitement and it rubs off on them,” says Loh.
Are you a math cheerleader? Do you have any tips for encouragement to share? Shoot us an email at DynaMath@scholastic.com
Sandy Ong is currently a graduate student at New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences and a master’s degree in Forensic Science. Before grad school, she was a medical writer based in London.
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