Historically, psychologists have studied math but have been noticeably absent when it comes to doing direct mathematics work with children. Notable exceptions include Diennes, Bruner, and Vygotsky, but to this day Psychologists tend to assess and make recommendations for treatment. This surprises me, given the cognitive processing involved and the anxiety that so often appears in achieving and struggling math students. I have designed and delivered treatment programs for struggling mathematics students for nearly 15 years, and I believe that other Psychologists could really contribute. Psychologists have a unique and relevant skill set that would add value to a treatment team. I have used mathematics as a vehicle in promoting a variety of therapeutic outcomes. The hours I spent working on math may be my most favored memories of my practice. To learn math for many of these youngsters is to conquer fear. I offer a few thoughts on the role of psychologists in teaching math.
1) Discover the structure of the child’s thought through constructing mathematical models and problems. Given space, children can do more than simply apply the sometimes confusing rules that might work on tests only to later fail to appear when encountering real world problems. Psychologists aim to enhance thinking performance which leads to confidence and resiliency.
2) Psychologists might help make sure that math enjoyment survives past 2nd grade.
3) Psychologists get training in helping children use the imagination. These techniques are well suited to mentally manipulate mathematical relationships, calculation problems and decoding symbols as mental objects. Psychologists teach visualization, for instance, which goes far in enhancing performance by using visuospatial skills.
4) Help children understanding concepts, meanings, and numbers. Math is a language developed for measuring and describing the natural world. Symbols appear, in part, to prove underlying ideas, relationships, and concepts. Physical objects are the reality, the symbols allow us to manipulate it. (There are exceptions in higher math, of course).
5) Help children use discovery to make math meaningful. Rote Memorization=boredom. When we play and build math problems, the inherent creative strategies transfer to real life problem solving.
6) Psychologists can make math fun. What if Math were fun? What if Math became an aesthetic experience? I often repeat “fun is solving a problem mentally” which is how Raph Koster defines it in his book A Theory of Fun).
7) We feel better by doing better. The Psychologist might help through a combination of play, motivational psychology, mindfulness, assessment, talk, and other interactive skills. The psychologist trades in building resiliency and helping patients solve problems.
Chime in and let me know what you think. Have I made a case for it?