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Who’s ‘good’ at math? Dan Siebert redefines success in mathematics


“Ask kids in school, Who’s good at mathematics? and they’ll say So-and-so. If you ask them why, they’ll say, Because they always finish first,” explains Dan Siebert.

Siebert, a BYU math education professor, seeks to change current perceptions of what makes a student good at math. He said, “Success in mathematics is defined so narrowly that only a small percentage of students who take mathematics can be thought of as successful or good.”

Siebert wants students to understand that speed and understanding are not necessarily synonymous. He describes a variety of unique strengths that indicate mathematical understanding, including the ability to:

-devise multiple strategies for the same problem

-create new representations to explain concepts better

-ask questions that get at the heart of the problem

-think critically—listen to other people’s explanations and point out where they don’t make sense

Students tend to be more interested in subjects they believe they are good at. Given that mathematics can be useful in almost any field, helping students discover their particular strengths in math might encourage them to develop their mathematical skillsets and thus contribute more meaningfully to future fields.

Besides redefining success, Siebert also focuses on helping his students be more successful mathematicians themselves.

“Students come with a strong understanding of the procedures that they do in middle school and high school, but not necessarily why they work,” said Siebert.” Together, he and his students create pictures or use manipulatives to justify why, for example, the invert-multiply rule works for fractions. “They start seeing connections across the content.”

Students in Siebert’s classes also focus on literacy and communication. They are taught to “not just understand mathematics but to write good explanations of the mathematics” by engaging in peer editing and whole-class critiques of student proofs.

As Siebert’s students leave their classrooms on campus for the classrooms of the younger generation, he hopes they have changed their vision of not only about what constitutes success in math, but also the way that they see themselves and their own capabilities.