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"Undoing Math": New Approach to Math 7 Means Everyone Can Be a "Math Person"
"Undoing Math": New Approach to Math 7 Means Everyone Can Be a "Math Person"

At some point you may have overheard someone say, "Oh gosh, I'm not a 'math person'!" But have you ever stopped to wonder why — why do so many people believe they are not "math people"?

Dispelling that notion — and, in essence, "undoing" math — is at the heart of great teaching happening in Ravenscroft math classes and, in particular, in the way Middle School math teachers Erin Altshuler and Lindsey Nelson are teaching Math 7.

"Everyone can be a 'math person,'" said Altshuler, chair of the department, who is currently pursuing her master's degree in Leadership of Mathematics Education at Bank Street College of Education in New York, NY.

Inspired by the work of Dr. Jo Baoler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford, and her book "Mathematical Mindsets," Altshuler and Nelson attended Boaler's training program designed for teachers pioneering new methods for teaching math.

Building on that program's extensive research, analysis and proven success, Altshuler and Nelson have reimagined the curriculum for Math 7 in a way that fosters critical thinking, problem solving, pattern identification and a deep understanding of mathematics principles.

"So often, when you ask a mathematician what their work entails, they are doing visual, creative things. Yet that is not what students experience in a traditional math classroom," Altshuler said. "It's really important to move teaching math beyond direct-instruction classes, where students are given definitions and assigned a plethora of practice problems. Instead of starting with a definition, we engage students with the problem. Rather than telling students how to solve it, we let them play with it for a little while."

Research shows that through interactive, collaborative visual learning experiences, students more readily understand math concepts, and their retention is higher. Altshuler shared that her students have greater passion and increased interest when making their own discoveries.

"Through their own interactions, collaboration and discoveries, students quickly 'get it.' They are seeing the patterns and developing their own understanding of the core concepts and traditional definitions," she said. "Because they've discovered it on their own, they have a deeper connection to the meaning."

For example, in working to understand rational numbers Altshuler and Nelson have employed the visual concept of "heaps and holes," where a heap is a pile of sand on the beach and a hole is a space you might step into. Through discussion and collaboration, students talk about what it means for two heaps to be added together. The result? A bigger heap. But what happens when a heap of sand is pushed into a hole? The visuals start to take shape, and concept of positive space (positive numbers) and negative space (negative numbers) begins to form in students' minds. Suddenly, they are talking about the size of the heap, how many heaps (positive numbers) and how many holes (negative numbers).

Students also keep a math journal that they can use for any reason they would like. Students draw, take notes and doodle to better understand the patterns they are seeing and the problems they are solving — furthering their understanding of the concepts.

One parent whose son had previously struggled with math concepts told Altshuler, "My son now understands this material at such a depth, I am amazed. He's making sense of it all on his own."

To help parents understand the new approach to Math 7, the Math Department held an information session, where they were able to experience such a lesson first-hand. Altshuler and Nelson were excited by the parent participation, support and positive responses.

Altshuler summarized it well by explaining, "Everyone can be a 'math person,' and that is exactly what we want all of our students to leave Math 7 knowing."

If you would like to learn more about the new approach to Math 7, contact Erin Altshuler at

For more information on Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler, you can watch this short YouTube video.