Create the number closest to 500

Undoing the ‘I Can’t think’ or ‘I’m Not a Maths Person’ Discourses

It’s a common phrase I hear in my maths classroom, “I can’t think” or “I can’t do it.” How do I undo years of negative self-talk in maths?

We’re working in small teams, on a multiplication challenge courtesy of Mark Chubb and Jenna Laib‘s, Number Boxes. Students have to come up with a 2 x 2 digit multiplication that comes close to the total 500. As a class we define close as + or – 20 to 30 of 500. 

We begin brainstorming possibilities that would give us a too low or too high number. Then we brainstorm combinations that would give us 500 exactly like 10 x 50 and 20 x 25. When doing so, I ensure to demonstrate different strategies that they may care to use. 

We then move into small teams to get as close to 500 as we can. I emphasise that this challenge is about improving as we go along, rather than getting it right straight away. 

Moving around the room I notice a group with little written/drawn on their whiteboards. They seem frustrated and anxious, with one student saying:

I can’t think.

It’s a phrase I’ve heard often this year, along with:

I just can’t do it. 

I encourage them to ‘have a go’ and see what number they produce, saying it’s not about getting a correct answer straight away. This doesn’t inspire confidence and they remain despondent, heads on their desk. 

In digging further, it seems they want to be told the numbers to try out. They want to be directed, how to proceed.

But there’s another hurdle – they think they’re not times tables people. This is a common problem I’ve encountered. The limiting view that some people can do times tables and others can’t. You can either memorise or you just know the times tables.

  • And if that’s not you – that’s it – you can’t do it.
  • Your stopping – not persisting and ultimately giving up on the maths task is explained and rationalised by not being a times tables person or maths person.

It gets me thinking about the harmful (in maths classes) consequences for students who frequently hear adults (including teachers) saying, ‘I’m not a maths person.’ 

It seems a major challenge of teaching maths in the senior school is endeavouring to undo negative mindsets about learning maths acquired across years beforehand.

The notion that times tables can be figured out with mental strategies isn’t something my students (for the most part) have come across in their primary schooling years.

  • For example 2 x anything is double the number, 4 x anything is double, double, 8 x anything is double, double, double.

And yet some students don’t buy into this mental strategising approach. Key here is the desire for a quick answer along with a lack of confidence in doubling, tripling, and other operations required in this approach.

When using concrete materials to build doubling and tripling skills, or taught multiple strategies for operations, I’ve often run up against resistance (from students).

Again, the desire for the quick fire, do this, then this, and there’s your answer – without daring to spend time developing a clear understanding of why – or having a number of attempts before arriving at the answer, seem to be a significant part of students’ resistance. As is the notion that concrete materials are for younger students.

Margarita Breed and I have critically explored the explicit teaching model, ‘I do, we do, you do’ (also known as the Gradual Release of Responsibility model) which my students have been heavily exposed to across their primary schooling years.

There’s more significant baggage to counter or to teach against. The belief that maths is about:

  • memorisation;
  • just getting an answer (without showing how you arrived at it) and that’s it.
    • Reflection or taking that knowledge and applying it in another situation is often unheard of.
  • precisely following a series of steps (demonstrated by the teacher) without an understanding of the reasoning for these steps.
  • Using unusual stories to remember the procedural steps for an algorithm but not knowing why you’re doing so.
    • When completing a multi-digit subtraction, I asked a student to think aloud. They spoke of going to a neighbour’s house to borrow, but having to skip a few (as they didn’t have the required amount). Then having found a neighbour with sufficient means, having to take the borrowing back or past several neighbours till they returned home.

It is a mighty challenge – for sure. I want my students to know that maths is about (but not limited to):

  • sense-making or meaning making;
  • having a bank of mental strategies to work our way through any mathematical problem;
  • looking for and making connections;
  • persisting – knowing that any problem is figure-out-able (thanks Pam W Harris);
  • making and learning from our mistakes;
  • productive struggle (Listen to Margarita Breed and I chat about productive struggle in episode 56 of my education podcast – Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran

Have a listen to episode 53 where we discuss building cultures of thinking in my maths classroom.

I have to remain cognisant that challenging years of unhelpful and limiting attitudes and teaching approaches to maths requires persistence and understanding on my behalf, as well as an open-ness to where students are coming from.

Margarita Breed shares how to have conversations with students who are resistant or have shut-down in episode 56 of my education podcast – Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran

Mental Times Tables

Here’s some examples of student work – using mental strategies for multiplication.

Student work on multiplication 1

Related Podcast Episodes

Click on the images below to listen to my maths-related chats with Margarita Breed.

Pushing The Edge logo plus photo of Margarita Breed. Text - Building Cultures of Thinking with Margarita Breed

Further Maths Posts and Episodes

Photo of Season 6 guests


Teaching Maths