For years, Lincoln mathematician Matthew Larson has heard the same complaint echoed by hundreds, if not thousands, of people: “I’m bad at math.”
But after spending 20 years as the K-12 math curriculum specialist for Lincoln Public Schools and now serving as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Larson believes that negative attitudes toward math are a major roadblock to successful learning.
“No one says that they’re not a history person,” Larson said. “But we learn math no differently than we learn to read or learn about history or social studies.”
To address this and other issues related to math, Larson co-wrote a book with Timothy Kanold, a colleague from the council, aimed at helping parents and teachers navigate through the sometimes-unnerving subject.
The book, “Balancing the Equation: A Guide to School Mathematics for Educators and Parents,” details the shift in mathematics education to include more background and reasoning behind the equations. Larson said that when many parents learned math the focus was just on how to solve problems. Now the goal is to create programs that help students understand how to do a problem, why they are doing it and when it will be applicable to their daily lives.
A key to math literacy, Larson said, is committed teachers and supportive parents who display positive attitudes toward math.
“As a child I had a number of really outstanding mathematics teachers that helped me with math processes, skills and helped me to learn the underlying reasonings,” Larson said.
He earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he later returned to teach classes in the mathematics and education departments for several years. He holds an honorary visiting appointment as an associate professor at Columbia University.
His career began as a math teacher in Lincoln.
“The great thing about being a teacher is that every year you get to start over,” Larson said. “The characteristic of an effective teacher is that they are constantly learning. A math teacher is always learning new mathematics, but also new instruction strategies.”
Larson’s position as a math curriculum specialist gave him an inside look at what wasn’t working about the way math is taught. His conversations with parents and teachers led him to begin writing and collaborating on books to bring clarity to the subject. This is the eighth book that he has published, but his first to directly address parents.
In April, Larson took over as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
He spends much of his week traveling across the country to give speeches and meet with math educators. He has been involved with the organization since the beginning of his career, but was asked to serve on the research committee in 2004, which launched his involvement in leadership roles.
Larson lives in Lincoln but frequently works from the council’s Virginia headquarters. His position involves a lot of writing, both for the organization’s presidential blog and for other publications that it creates yearly.
The council is the nation’s largest publisher of mathematic materials and textbooks. Larson’s most recent book was published by the organization.
The first part of the book focuses on helping educators understand the history of math education and why it is important to have a greater balance between how to solve problems and why students are solving them. Larson said teachers should encourage students and hold them to high expectations.
“A highly effective educator creates a positive learning environment and has strong, positive relationships with each student,” Larson said.
The second portion of the book focuses on parents’ role in their children’s success. It aims to help parents understand the goals of math education, what they can expect in the classroom and how they can help their children learn.
“It’s really important for parents to monitor their math attitudes,” Larson said. “A lot of people say they aren’t good at math, but you should never say that, even if it is true, because it teaches the student that it’s acceptable to not work hard because they’re just bad at it. It’s really important to communicate that learning about mathematics and being successful in it is no different than being successful in music or athletics. On the part of the student, it is just hard work and practice.”
Larson says parents frequently complain that the problems are too complex, or they learned it differently and aren’t able to help with homework.
Larson said parents should understand that the homework is for the child, not for them. “But they can provide support for their child by asking questions, having a positive attitude toward math and showing the importance of mathematics in the real world,” he said.
Larson plans to return to Lincoln Public Schools as the math curriculum specialist once his two-year term as his organization’s president is over. He wants to continue writing books and helping to improve mathematics education.
“It’s an honor to be serving as NCTM president,” he said. “So far I don’t know that that will be the end point for me.”