Kyle Pearce Puts a Stop to “I’m Not Good at Math”

Kyle Pearce, K-12 Math Consultant

Greater Essex County District School Board, ON, Canada

Too often, students progress through school either labelling themselves or receiving the label of not being ‘good at math’. These students lose confidence in their mathematics abilities and begin to view math as an obstacle, a burden, and something that is beyond their reach.

However, there is a movement in the math educators community to combat this trend and it is rapidly picking up steam. This movement is founded on the idea that it is not the student’s lack of aptitude for math that has failed them, but the lack of opportunities they have been given to engage with math in developmentally appropriate ways. Kyle Pearce, a Math Consultant for the Greater Essex County District School Board, is at the forefront of this movement. He has some theories on what causes this division between students that are good and bad at math, and some strategies on how it can be avoided.

Who Is Kyle Pearce?

Kyle has been working with the Greater Essex County District School Board since 2006 and coaches teachers to create rich math tasks that are contextual, visual and, concrete. As part of this coaching, he has delivered keynote speeches at math education conferences, developed professional development programs, and created countless digital instructional resources for teachers. He is also the creator of the Tap Into Teen Minds, a site that focuses on instructional methods and resources for providing more visual and spatial representations of math concepts while sparking curiosity with ‘3-act math tasks’.

Kyle’s work with iPads and technology in math class has led to a number of designations and certifications including Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), Apple Education Trainer (APD), and Google Certified Teacher (GCT).

Before he was an accomplished Math Consultant, Kyle spent several years teaching Grade Nine Applied Mathematics. He noticed that many of his students reported struggling with math throughout elementary and lacked confidence in their abilities. Kyle says it was his experiences in this class that inspired him to start “unpacking what good math learning looks like and what we need to do to help students succeed.

Kyle’s Theory on “Not Good At Math” Labels  

The positive impact of spatial reasoning on student success in math and STEM-related fields has been widely documented. Kyle’s hypothesis regarding why students lack confidence in math is that “many students have not had the opportunity to engage with math spatially; both concretely and visually.” In many cases, instruction rushes to abstract representation – starting with the numerals, equations, calculations, and memorized math facts. When students have more opportunities to explore math spatially and concretely before moving towards these abstractions, they are better able to understand the concepts at hand. This means introducing concepts through contextual problems and investigations, presenting multiple representations through a range of manipulatives, and fostering creative and collaborative problem-solving amongst learners.

What Makes an Effective Digital Math Resource

Leveraging digital resources in the classroom is a great way to put Kyle’s hypothesis to the test and make math more visual. There is immense potential for educational technology to offer students diverse opportunities to explore math concepts in a manner that is spatial and contextual. However, Kyle reports that when it comes to digital resources, “It is difficult to find something that is not simply worksheets in disguise. Many digital tools have a game that is unrelated to the math and in order to get past a level, students need to complete some sort of traditional math problem like answering a multiple choice question.

The resources he describes are often called ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ and they sugar-coat the traditional rush to memorizing math facts and procedures. Even worse, it positions math as a barrier to an otherwise fun activity. “That’s a huge issue,” he says. “Students who dislike mathematics because they’ve struggled with the traditional approach, are now being held back from playing a fun game and being made to do more of that math that they never understood. It’s not actually helping to address the root of the problem.

Kyle looks for activities that keep math front and centre. “A digital resource should expose the idea that math is actually an enjoyable thing to do. They should put students into a productive struggle, pique their curiosity, and give them challenges that are fun to solve.

Another important criterion is providing students with multiple representations of a math concept. This gives students multiple ways to solve a problem or arrive at a solution and encourages creative problem-solving. “What I find in tools like Zorbit’s is that students are being given tools and representations as part of the game. They use ten-frames early on and then they move on to concrete number lines in ‘part-part-whole’ situations. These are things that students need more exposure to throughout their education.

Putting Digital Math Resources to Work

One can talk all day about what better math learning looks like, but putting it into action is what really counts. Kyle strives to help the teachers in his district ‘walk the walk’ by thoroughly vetting instructional resource recommendations and providing implementation strategies. “When you find a digital math resource that actually helps students like Zorbit’s, you want to ensure students have access to those tools. We want to promote that it’s more than a reward or a tool for taking a break. It is a rich learning tool. It’s going to deepen the students’ understanding of mathematics and show students that learning can be fun. It’s not the cherry on the top after you do the boring stuff.

Kyle demonstrates how to use Zorbit’s in a variety of capacities. For example, teachers can launch the game on their SMARTBoard and use Zorbit’s to guide number talks about new concepts. Teachers have used screenshots from the game to spark curiosity and conversation about the scenario and the multiple ways students might approach it. Teachers can use the activities in the game to reinforce concepts previously covered through hands-on investigations. “Zorbit’s gives students another way to see the math. Teachers can see how students are using [the multiple representations] in the game and bring their strategies back into the classroom to reinforce the information and strategies. They create memorable contexts that students are able to recall later.

Kyle provides teachers with a wealth of applications and implementation strategies for digital resources like Zorbit’s Math Adventure but also reports that getting started need not be so complicated. For new Zorbit’s users and teachers who find blended learning to be challenging, Kyle has two recommendations. First, “Teachers should activate their own student account and dive into Zorbit’s themselves. This way, teachers can anticipate what solutions students will create, what representations are being used and what questions they want to ask students.” Secondly, he suggests teachers let students do the same. Let students dive in and see how they interact with the activities. “See what they think. Watch what they do. Watch how they’re solving problems and then take a look at the dashboard to see what students are proficient in and what areas gaps might exist. You might be surprised by what some of the data your students generate may suggest.

Kyle’s approach to teaching and learning math combats the perception that students are either good or bad at math. His emphasis on concrete and multiple representations of math concepts coupled with selective criteria for digital resources opens math up to everyone. No longer is math proficiency reserved for those who can memorize math facts and follow algorithms efficiently. With a deeper understanding of math concepts, young math learners will grow into creative and resilient problem-solvers.

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