It has been reported today that math scores for U.S. students have not gotten better since the Bush administration’s enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001. The goal was for every student to be proficient in math (at their respective level) by the year 2014. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re heading toward that goal. For the sixth year in a row, math scores for eighth graders improved only slightly, and scores for fourth graders didn’t improve at all.

It’s time for another approach. Robert Frick is a PhD in cognitive psychology. Along with being a professor, he leads math enrichment programs for children. He has some insightful ideas for how to restructure a child’s learning of math. It involves skiing. Excellent. Here are his ideas:

“When I teach math, I try to make the experience for the students like my experience when I go…skiing. I conceptualize skiing as a problem-solving exercise. The idea is that humans have an unconscious structure that can learn. When it learns, you develop a skill. You also enjoy the learning process…Of course, I think of math as a problem-solving exercise. Math can be fun for exactly that same way that skiiing can be fun — it is enjoyable when you solve a problem. Now let’s think of the differences between skiing and math. In math, you are given a problem to solve. You either succeed or fail. In skiing, no one gives you a problem, or tells you that you have a problem. Instead, it just sort of appears. Then you deal with it. Or fall. But there is no one there to tell you that you failed.

Instead, in skiing, your conscious intent is to enjoy yourself by exercising your skill.

Second, in skiing, you can choose your level of difficulty. You might not do that wisely. But you know roughly your ability level. You will not choose a slope that is too easy, because there are no problems for you, you are not using your skill at a high level, and as a consequence, the easy slope is boring. You will not choose a difficult slope because you will just fall and that won’t be any fun.

You can also choose to be adventuresome — choose a difficult slope for your given skill. Or you can choose to be conservative, and choose an easy slope that just moderately challenges you. Which you choose depends on your personality and your mood at that moment.

In math, the problem is chosen for you. Someone may or may not do a good job at that. The key thing, probably, is that the experience in skiing is that you are choosing your level of challenge, and in math you are not.

If students have a mature perspective towards math, you probably do not have to work so hard to make math like skiing. That might help a little, but it is not so important. The worry is students who do not have a mature perspective towards math. They are likely to see math problems as a test of their skill; they are more likely to see the potential for failure rather than the potential for enjoyment.

For these students, it is useful to restructure the math experience so that it is more like skiing.

One simple trick is this. Suppose you are giving problems. You can have a lot of problem sets available, at differing ability levels. You rate the difficulty of the problem sets. Then you let the students choose which difficulty level they want to work at.

For example, I was going to assess students’ ability and then give them problems suited to their ability. But then I realized I could let them just choose what level of problem they wanted. A student might pick problems that were too easy. But so what? What did I care? Actually, the student might be right. And if the student was wrong, the student would probably learn that problems which are too easy are also boring. And if the student was so afraid of failure that the student would rather do easy boring problems? The easy problems are probably best for that student.

Some students picked problems that were too difficult. Again, I couldn’t find any drastic consequences. They just moved to easier problems. And they probably learned something about choosing too difficult of problems. Some students pretended that they had solved the difficult problems. Again, what did I care?

So, as a general principle, try to reconceptualize the student’s task as using a skill. Ideally, they perceive no problem, they just perceive progress…[make] the student’s task so it is less like a problem with a right and wrong answer, and more like a journey, experience, or matter of opinion and judgment.”

Thanks, Doc! Take that to heart teachers!