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Here’s an approach to math phobia that could add up: Tackle the fear head on

Michael Gallin is a math teacher at Kappa International High School in the Bronx. Here, he works on a challenging problem with his students, hoping to alleviate some of their anxiety over math.
Michael Gallin is a math teacher at Kappa International High School in the Bronx. Here, he works on a challenging problem with his students, hoping to alleviate some of their anxiety over math. (Kyle Spencer/The Hechinger Report)

NEW YORK — Michael Gallin, a 34-year-old math teacher at KAPPA International High School in the Bronx, was winding his way through the cluttered aisles of his algebra classroom listening for sighs of frustration.

One girl was sitting glumly by the window, eyeballing a function she was supposed to evaluate: If f(x) = 3.2x^2 - 1.44(x+x^3), find f(2.7). “I know these are the questions you don’t feel like thinking about,” Gallin said. “But these are the questions that are really going to help you.”

“Take your time,” he told a young man in the front row who was half-answering questions, then moving on. “I don’t want you rushing through these problems because you are getting all nervous and saying, ‘Nah, I’m not going to do this.’ ”

When a student in faded jeans and a sweatshirt shouted, “Oh my God. I’m so pathetic,” after misinterpreting a graph, Gallin responded, “Who’s pathetic?” as if offended by her cruel self-assessment.

A moment later, when that same student had a eureka moment, he urged her to explain how she’d discovered the answer to her seatmate. “Don’t be nervous,” he said.

At one point, he exclaimed: “Not so scary, eh?”

American students are bombing math. In 2015, a mere 25 percent of high school seniors were proficient or higher in the subject, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which produces the most reliable data on academic competency.

Efforts to improve these numbers have abounded. Dozens of states have incorporated more rigorous standards through the implementation of the Common Core. Many schools have tweaked math classes to include more visualization and lessons that relate more to real life.

But Gallin is part of a growing band of educators who believe that to help struggling students get ahead, teachers must also attack the emotional barriers holding them back. Repeated failures, they say, can be deeply scarring. Negative feelings spiral into damaging self-talk that eventually paralyzes students.

“They are afraid of being wrong,” said Gallin. “And that fear of being wrong cripples them.”

Gallin has a broad smile, a taste for trendy sneakers and a casual but direct way of communicating. His students chop off the “Mr.” when talking to him, affectionately calling him simply “Gallin.”

In the fall of 2016, increasingly frustrated by his inability to motivate his students despite his energetic teaching style and popularity inside the classroom, he was drawn to the idea that addressing emotional barriers might help them.

At the time, the New York City Department of Education was developing a research division focused solely on student motivation. Working with Eskolta School Research and Design, a New York education consulting firm, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a California education research center, the city’s education department was testing solutions inside dozens of schools. Gallin’s school was one of them.

Gallin approached Alicia Wolcott, the Eskolta adviser working at his school. They mapped out a plan, sometimes soliciting advice from other teachers. Wolcott encouraged Gallin to carefully study his students’ work and look for clues.

That’s when he noticed a curious trend. In homework assignments, classwork and practice tests, his students didn’t actually get hard problems wrong; they didn’t even attempt them.

Wolcott considered this information progress. “Then the question became: ‘What’s going on inside students’ heads, and what do we do about that?’ ” she said.

Telling depressed kids they’re capable of change might help them improve

During the winter of 2017, after multiple meetings, including one with the renowned mind-set researcher Chris Hulleman, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Motivate Lab there, Gallin began to test a run of tweaks. He started by gently encouraging students not to leave blank any classroom worksheet problems, especially the hardest ones. That didn’t really work.

Next, he took a more proactive approach. Instead of waiting until the end of a lesson to introduce the hardest problem of the day, he put it on the board at the start. He began class by telling students he was confident they would soon know how to solve it. Then, after walking his students through a few easier problems, Gallin took on the challenging problem himself. Students watched. He asked key questions as he went along, soliciting their help. And always, he acknowledged what they were feeling, calling the problem “scary.”

Gallin told students even though they were nervous, it was important “to stay open and vulnerable around challenges.”

The message seemed to be getting through.

As the year went on, he made other tweaks. Rather than praising students for getting a problem right, he praised them for trying, often asking his class: “How many attempted it?” When a student came to the board to work out a problem and made a mistake, instead of erasing it and moving on, he relished the mistake: “What did she do? Let’s look at this.”

“I tell them: ‘I want you to fail now! Get it wrong now. Get it wrong it now, and get feedback.’ ”

He hoped that once his students stopped avoiding the problems that made them uncomfortable, they would be more open to absorbing the math skills they needed to get them right. When students did a problem, he urged them to read it multiple times: once for context, once for the actual question being asked and once to determine what information was being given. He encouraged them to visualize the problem, to test a variety of different strategies for solving it, and to practice talking about their strategies and hearing the strategies used by other students.

The small tweaks paid off. After the June 2017 Regents exam, 25 of the 41 students who had repeatedly failed the state test passed — a rate of 61 percent. Another 12 students came within a few points of passing. In 2016, a mere 37 percent of the school’s test-takers passed.

The approach Gallin took is not unique to his Bronx classroom. With the help of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, hundreds of teachers across the country are testing their own ways to re-energize students plagued by past failures through merging specific emotional skills with academic ones.

Colleges confront the simple math that keeps students from graduating on time

Researchers who run motivation labs on university campuses talk to teachers about what the most up-to-date research reveals about the root causes of their students’ disinterest or avoidance. Together, the researchers and teachers come up with targeted solutions, which they then test inside real classrooms. If the solutions help, teachers share them with one another. If they don’t, teachers and researchers work together to alter and retest them.

It’s not always easy to tell whether the new approaches help overall student performance, because schools interested in this type of experimentation are often innovating in other ways as well: changing grading policies, moving to more project-based learning models and rethinking discipline strategies.

But as more teachers have signed on to the Carnegie program at KAPPA International, attendance and four-year-graduation rates have gone up. In 2014, 83 percent of the school’s students graduated within four years; last year, 91 percent did. The school’s overall average Algebra Regents exam score went from 60 in 2015 to 67 last year. The required passing rate for most students is 65.

Teachers working with the Carnegie Foundation in other schools around the country have reported similar gains.

It’s time to stop the clock on math anxiety

The classroom practice embraces a quality-control process made famous in the 1950s by management consultant W. Edwards Deming, who advised business leaders to mimic the scientific method when making changes to procedures on plant floors and inside offices. First, he told them, plan a small change, do it, see if it works, and only then employ it on a large scale.

But even fierce advocates say this incremental process has limitations. It requires time, commitment and the help of someone such as Hulleman, a renowned researcher who travels around the world talking about student motivation. And perhaps more importantly, even a method that works can be quickly derailed by changes in school staffing.

The students in Gallin’s class haven’t discovered a new passion for numbers this year. But for some students, Gallin’s approach has altered what they tell themselves when faced with their least-favorite subject.

“I don’t like math,” sophomore Genesis Hernandez said during a visit in the fall, lifting her hands in the air for emphasis. “I see these equations and graphs, and before I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not doing that.’ Now, I say, ‘I can do this. I just need to look at it really hard.’ ”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.