Recently K-12 student test scores were released in the media showing a decline in both reading and math. Several students who are gifted in math and their parents were talking with me about the report and about their experiences learning math in school. These students find using math, including higher-level math, interesting and are challenged when using it to solve high-level real-world problems. However, they also shared that while they enjoy using math in real life, math class is generally painful. The reasons are many: They are required to show their work when they are able to do much of the math in their head (even higher-level math), they are not allowed to explain their answer or the next stage of using the math operation in a problem, and are not allowed to create a model or image of how the math is applied to solve a problem (e.g., fortifying a bridge that may be ready to collapse, or manipulating an algorithm to enhance security of their home or school network.)
The students said that timed tests, drill and practice classwork and homework is frustrating because they see no application of these activities to actually using math to solve real problems. Because they can do the skills in their head when needed, they yearn for greater challenges. Additionally, many students said they are not good at drill and practice timed tests because their thinking process is very different from answering rote questions requiring multiplication tables or addition/subtraction facts.
The students said they see math patterns, relationships, and concepts in their mind and find it difficult to explain in words how they solved a problem. Showing their work on paper can be very painful. A few parents said their students have strengths in visual, spatial, and/or visual spatial learning, especially in math, and can see pictures and images in their mind that others never recognize or imagine. The students said that often they can do math that is beyond the skills of their parents and teachers, and sometimes that is problematic, too. Again, they yearn for challenges.
I asked the students what recommendations they have for adults that would help them learn more math skills at their level and beyond. The most common response was to let the students solve math problems the way they need to, and to let them explore big problems in creative ways, including solving some parts in their head, and in ways the teacher may not understand. Students also desire access to accelerated math classes in upper grade levels if they have the prerequisite skills. While many students may have deficits in their math skills and may have a need for specific math intervention, they also have needs which may require advanced math opportunities beyond their assigned grade level math class.
I once had a teacher who told me that math is not about the numbers, it is about how one thinks; the thinking process is important, not the worry about getting the right numbers, because once one knows how to think about the problem, one can solve any similar problem regardless of what the numbers are. The students with whom I was talking agreed with this approach, and hoped that others can understand that they need different ways of learning math. As always, differentiation is the key.
Following are a few resources about the topic of mathematics and gifted students:
Mathematically Gifted Students: How Can We Meet Their Needs?
The Spatially Gifted-Our Future Architects and Engineers-Are Being Overlooked
Visual Spatial Learners
Dr. Wanda Routier
Former WATG Board Member
Ask the Doctor