“I’m just not good at math” and other myths proven wrong – USA

Robin Angotti, Associate Professor, Mathematics Education - USA
Apr 2

If you, or one of your students has ever proclaimed, “I just don’t get math,” Robin Angotti has a solution for you: Kinect. “For students who struggle,” she says, “these technological tools can make a huge difference.” Angotti – perhaps best known in academic circles as the architect of Kinect Math – believes that technology can help create a much clearer understanding of mathematics. Math is generally taught in the abstract, which leads to confusion for a majority of students (Angotti was one!).  Angotti’s quest is to bring math down to the real-world level for students, and to make teaching math concrete. Kinect helps do this by bringing math to life and allowing students to graph functions with their bodies (no more worksheets). “I don’t get it” quickly turns into “I get it!” Angotti recently shared her thoughts on taking technology to rural schools, being an innovative teacher, and how admitting mistakes can be the best thing an educator can do.

What is your proudest professional achievement? 

The work that I am most recognized for and my proudest professional achievement are not necessarily the same although they are related.  The work I am most proud of is the work I did when teaching mathematics to high school students who were struggling learners. Motivating them, watching them learn, helping them to appreciate the power and the beauty of mathematics and its relationship to their lives is the work I am most proud of.
That work is the day-to-day work of being a high school math teacher and it is rarely recognized.

I am currently most recognized for my work as the architect of a piece of software called Kinect Math which utilizes Microsoft’s Kinect sensor to allow the user to interact with mathematical functions using body movements.  For example, a user can graph a line y = mx+b and control the slope, m, and the y-intercept, b, with arm motion.  The software also allows the user to move in front of the motion detector and graphs their distance, velocity and acceleration related to time as they move.  That software was conceived as a direct result of my work with my former students and struggling learners of mathematics.  I believe it has the power to make math more accessible to them as well as to students who understand it more traditionally and abstractly.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I am not under any misconceptions that one piece of software that I conceived is going to be the “end” of problems with mathematics.  What I think I have done is opened a door with an idea that will allow my field to think about how technology can provide new ways to teach mathematics (and all subjects requiring visualization) more kinesthetically and concretely to allow all students access to difficult concepts.  I think that more people will develop software which will be even more dynamic and that a new avenue of research in mathematics education will open up to allow us to study the impact of gesture supported mathematics on students’ understanding.

How can other educators facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned?

The software is freely available for download at kinectmath.org.  Educators can use it and give feedback to allow for modification.  Since the software development kit for the Kinect is relatively straightforward to use, they can also develop their own software to solve a problem they see in their classrooms.  The important thing is to notice: pay attention to which students are having problems and try to find solutions for those problems.  It isn’t enough to say that students “aren’t getting it.”  The questions to ask are “Why?” and “What can be done about it?”  And then start searching for solutions.  If a ready-made solution isn’t available, then don’t be afraid to take a risk and make one.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

I think fear of change is the biggest obstacle. Everyone struggles with change. Change is scary.  Failure is scary.  When I started teaching, I taught the way I was taught.  I didn’t know any other way. To try new things and to risk failure in front of a class of students was
scary.  But when I realized that I wasn’t reaching all of my students, I knew I had to do something.  So I took risks, and sometimes failed, but many times succeeded.  I succeeded by noticing and paying attention to where my students were struggling and then I worked to fill those gaps.  When I failed, I admitted it and moved on.

This was especially true when trying to implement technology.  There was no road map of how it should be done.  I was one of the early adopters of technology in the classroom.  There were no published “best practices” to follow. Each day I just tried something and hoped it would work.

A fear of change is also seen in administrators, parents, and the larger community.  They point to the failures (i.e., New Math) when advocating for the “basics.”  They want students to learn the way they learned, which means nice organized rows, quiet students, hands up to answer questions, using traditional procedures and lots of worksheets.  Yet when I ask most adults how they feel about math, they usually answer, “I hated it, it didn’t make any sense.” There is a disconnect between two groups of people: those who are “good” at math and those who say, “I’m just not good at math.” The people who learned math traditionally are thought to be “good at math” and want it to be taught the way they learned.  For the majority, they struggled with math traditionally and would like to see it taught a different way, but have no understanding of how to accomplish that successfully.

With the advent of technology, the world has changed and education should be more dynamic – we don’t need to teach in rows with children sitting quietly, working on worksheets. Mathematical thinking in the technological age is more than just procedures, it is conceptual thinking. Ensuring students get a quality education requires noisy, cooperative classrooms.  And it requires embracing change and looking at new ways of doing things.  It requires classrooms where failures are opportunities for learning.

What is your country doing right to support education?

I think that the United States is realizing the need to focus on STEM (Science, Technology,
Engineering and Mathematics) education.  Mathematics is a gatekeeper to STEM fields.  Supporting math and science teachers in learning new technology and pedagogical “best practices” is important for producing more students in the STEM pipeline. I think that the US is waking up to that reality with a newfound emphasis on STEM education.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

The inequities I see in regions of the US are appalling.  There are schools in rural districts that have technology that is so antiquated it should be in museums, as well as schools that have no technology at all.  There are schools where they have had long-term substitutes for years for lack of finding qualified teachers who want to live in remote areas.  A lot of focus has been put on urban schools in high poverty areas – recruiting teachers there and gaining access to technology.  Rural schools suffer many of the same problems as urban schools, but have largely gone unnoticed.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

The best opportunity for innovation in education is to give teachers the access and the ability to actually be innovative.  Teachers are stifled by administrators, parents, testing, resources and their own internal fear of failure.  When you take away all the obstacles to change, and give teachers the freedom to try (and fail) and to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, innovation happens.  It happens because teachers actually care that their students learn.  No teacher goes to school in the morning and says “I just want to be a mediocre teacher today and keep the kids in their seats.  It doesn’t matter if I teach them anything.”  Teachers want their students to be successful.  But fear of change and reprimand keeps them from trying new things that might make a difference.

Teachers also need access to ideas.  If they only know the way they were taught, how would they know to do anything else?  They need to have access to new ideas and time to assimilate those ideas into what they are teaching.  Teachers need to see that innovation is connected to what they are teaching and that it will impact student achievement.  And sometimes they need to see someone else take the risk first before they will venture out and try it on their own.  Especially when it comes to new ideas regarding technology, for some reason, teachers find technology scary. Maybe because of all the times they have seen it fail.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be?

Every child needs one adult that believes in them.  How many of us remember that one teacher, or one person, that made a difference in our lives?  Knowing that someone believes in you makes all the difference in taking a risk to try something new, or to learn a new skill.  There are children in the world that have no adult paying attention to their lives. That is where teachers can have the most influence – by simply caring. Every child needs one adult to let them know they matter.

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About Robin Angotti

Robin Angotti is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Washington Bothell and currently lives in Seattle.  She has a PhD in Mathematics Education from North Carolina State University with a minor in Statistics.  Robin is a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adulthood Mathematics and taught public high school for over a decade in rural eastern North Carolina.  A national leader in the use of educational technology for mathematics education, Angotti’s research interests also include statistics education and representation use in developmental algebra.  An avid outdoorswoman, Robin enjoys kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, and backpacking.

Birthplace:  Millinocket, Maine
Current residence: Seattle, Washington
Education: BS (Mathematics Education; Magna Cum Laude) from East Carolina University MAEd (Mathematics Education) from East Carolina University; PhD (Mathematics Education, Statistics Minor) North Carolina State University
Website I check every day:  Facebook to look at the pictures of my granddaughters
Person who inspires me most:  Anyone who has the courage to face adversity head on, to do what is right even when it isn’t easy, and to admit to their mistakes and make amends.  I am inspired by the “underdog” who will stand up for what they know is right and influence change in the world around them even though it would be easier to just maintain the status quo.
Favorite childhood memory:  We had a small summer cabin on a lake in Maine that we would move into on Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day.  Summers were spent hiking in the woods, cooking over wood fires, singing campfire songs, toasting marshmallows, swimming and watching lightning dance across the lake.  I remember picking blueberries and making blueberry pie, paddling around the lake, jumping my bike over rocks, diving off the boom logs, playing with the dog. The things I loved best were the mist rising over the water on an early morning paddle, the eerie call of loons, the smell of pine trees, the coldness of the water, and the taste of fresh wild berries.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): North Carolina next week (to facilitate professional development for teachers and take a side trip to see my granddaughters)
Favorite book: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I think I read that book 40
times as a preteen/teenager.  The concept of a tesseract made me interested in mathematics.  The book made me realize that mathematics could explain some of the phenomena in the universe that we can’t see or touch or hold, i.e. the unexplained.   The book’s theme of breaking away from conformity also heavily influenced my youth and my adulthood (and my whole non-conformist philosophy of life).
Favorite music:  I like all genres of music depending on the mood I am in.  I guess you could say, I like music with a soul that makes me think and feel deeply.  The things I listen to most often are female jazz such as Lizz Wright or Ella Fitzgerald; alternative music such as Radiohead, Green Day and Nirvana; old rock and roll (Eagles, Lynard Skynard); and Indie Rock (Pink, Alanis Morrisette).

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