Every Student Has Math Strengths: Unlocking All Students’ Potential
Have you ever tried to learn how to tango or maybe thought you’d learn how to knit, only to feel that you just didn’t have the skill set needed to master your new pursuit? If you really wanted to burn up the floor or create a woolen hat, you were most likely disheartened and frustrated. Now I’m not a tango dancer, but I do knit, and I think anyone can learn given the right instruction. And as you’ve heard me say again and again in this blog, all students can do math.
But with both knitting and math, it’s important that we build from a positive base. There is nothing more discouraging when learning a new skill than hearing only about the mistakes you have made. Unfortunately, too many kids have had math instruction that focuses only on what went wrong and not at all on what they have done well. It’s particularly important to counter the widespread misconception that you need the “math gene” (there is no so thing) to be good at math. Every student has math strengths.
What Is Strengths-Based Learning?
Even unintentionally, it can be all too easy to default to math instruction that focuses on deficit learning, identifying students’ weaknesses, what they don’t do well or don’t understand, and drilling in those areas to improve performance. But research shows that leveraging children’s strengths to address areas of challenge works better than concentrating instructional efforts on identifying and overcoming weaknesses.
Strengths-based instruction promotes the identification and development of students’ individual skills and encourages them to use these skills to achieve their goals. The strengths may not always be those conventionally associated with math achievement, but when students successfully tap into their skills, research indicates that they are more likely to obtain learning objectives and become confident, competent mathematicians. Simply put, the potential for math success exists in all students.
There are five stages to implementing a strengths-based model:
- Measurement: Identifying student strengths
- Individualization: Creating instruction tailored to students’ strengths
- Networking: Providing students with opportunities for feedback, support, and affirmation
- Development: Helping students connect strengths to personal goals and areas for further growth
- Intentionality: Introducing new experiences so students can practice and refine strengths
Strengths-based teaching in the math classroom begins with the belief that all students can learn math. When teachers believe that kids can achieve, students, even those who may have previously been identified as bad at math, know that with practice and effort they can succeed. This positive approach has many learning benefits, including:
- Demonstrating that all students add value to the classroom.
- Helping students identify and achieve individual learning goals.
- Improving student engagement and perseverance.
- Boosting student confidence.
- Increasing academic success.
- Encouraging constructive peer support and feedback.
- Helping students develop a can-do mindset.
- Providing students with the blueprint for lifelong learning.
Strategies for the Math Classroom
Sometimes when we explore a new teaching method, we assume that it’s all or nothing. Whether you are ready to fully implement assets-based learning or want to gradually introduce strengths-based teaching, here are a few strategies you can try.
Call out student strengths. As you and your students identify their individual strengths, write them down. It’s important for both you and your students to be able to frequently revisit and refine their asset list. This list will grow over time as students demonstrate new strengths. You may also want to help students determine a particularly well-developed strength, or math superpower, which may or may not be exclusively related to math. Perhaps Madison’s superpower is that she is particularly adept at helping her peers clarify their ideas. Or Paco might excel at illustrating his thinking. And Avery might be a star at seeing and connecting patterns.
I also encourage you to regularly point out student strengths in class. It’s incredibly affirming, especially for students who may take a bit longer to process information, to have their ability to develop an elegant solution path praised in front of their classmates. And of course, this reinforces that every student is important and provides learning insights.
Here’s a chart based on the Mathematical Practices to help you start identifying your students’ mathematical strengths.
Identify your math strengths. Students learn from us. When you model how you use your individual strengths to tackle new concepts, students see that they too can work from a place of strength. They discover that by building upon what they already know and tapping into their skill sets they can take on new challenges.
Focus on success. You can still present the same learning criteria, tied to standards and individual students’ goals, but rather than rating performance—poor, fair, good, excellent or does not meet, partially meets, meets, exceeds—simply indicate what the student did correctly. Rather than thinking about what a student doesn’t know, reframe to consider what a student does know. Then you can tailor the next instructional steps to leverage students’ strengths, building upon success, to move forward into new learning.
Think about connections, not gaps. If a student has only met one or two of several learning criteria, it can become overwhelming and counter-productive to identify all the areas where a student falls short. Instead, use an “If-then” model to link a student strength (if) to new learning (then). For example, if students know how to use repeated addition to help multiply whole numbers (3 x 2 = 2 + 2 + 2 = 6), then they can use this same strategy to multiply fractions (3 x 1/8 = 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 + 3/8). Or if some students excel at using manipulatives creatively, then they may be able to determine which manipulative might help them best tackle a new problem.
Encourage feedback and support. One of the key stages of strengths-based teaching is providing opportunities for networking. Turn and talk, partnering, and whole-class discourse present opportunities for students to collaborate with and learn from their classmates. As you walk around the room help students tailor their feedback to call out what their peers did well and to reflect upon what strength(s) led to greater understanding. And remind students that their classmates can exhibit strong thinking and creative ideas even when they don’t arrive at the correct answer.
Consider creating a strengths wall. As you and students identify a strength, post it on the wall with the student’s name and an example of how the student demonstrated that particular strength. For instance, you might note that Henrietta was willing to share her ideas and risk making a mistake, which helped the whole class move forward.
Don’t forget to include students’ families in the support network. You can provide students’ parents or guardians with a list of the strengths you see their child exhibiting in the math classroom. This shows parents that their kids can do math and have strengths that help them persevere through challenges to achieve goals. You’ll also want to ask family members to share examples of strengths students exhibit at home, since these may be different than those they show in the math classroom. This provides you with a full picture of students’ assets and how they can be channeled to help them meet their learning goals.
Share it forward. If you work at a grade level where students move between classes, provide the other teachers with a list of students’ strengths. Students typically use the same strengths in different ways in math, social studies, science, music, or language arts. When these teachers know that a particular student is skilled at breaking down a problem into logical steps, they can help the student use this same strength to write better or to understand a piece of music. And of course, at the end of the year provide the rising-grade math teacher with a list of each student’s strengths with concrete examples. This sets up the new teacher to help students further build upon and refine their core strengths.
As you start teaching with a strengths-based lens, you’ll notice a shift in your thinking from, “my students have so much to learn,” to “my students already know so much.” And students may just discover that math is their favorite class.
If you would like to learn more about strengths-based teaching, I highly recommend Beth McCord Kobett and Karen Karp’s book Strengths-Based Teaching and Learning in Mathematics for grades K-6.
Tedeschi, R.G. & Kilmer, R.P. (2005) Assessing strengths, resilience and growth to guide clinical interventions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 6(3), 230–237.
Brownlee, K. Rawana, E.P. & MacArthur, J. (2012) Implementation of a strengths-based approach to teaching elementary school. Journal of Teaching and Learning, Vol 8, No. 1.
Lopez, S.J. & Louis, M.C. (2009) The principles of strengths-based education. Journal of College and Character, 10(4).