What does it take to become a talented mathematician?

The 21st century has seen some major upheavals in terms of education. Schools have strayed from teaching content and headed towards teaching core competencies, like critical thinking and self-regulation. Teaching for understanding is now favoured over drill and kill, which some say led to mastery in the past. Instruction is no longer directed by the teacher, but is led by student inquiry. Grading has been replaced by assessment for learning; and even final reports are now summarized with a student’s own self-reflection, instead of  teacher’s suggestions for improvement.

As a result, parents are often left confused about how their child is actually performing and whether he or she is still able to do the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. There are increasing amounts of arguments over traditional instruction versus ‘21st century’ learning and which method leads to greater achievement. No wonder there has been a huge push-back from parents and even some governments.

So today, I am going to share my view on what the math curriculum should look like and more importantly, how parents can increase the opportunity for math success in their own child. These are only my opinions; however, they come from an informed, educated place with many years of mathematics teaching and learning under my belt. My classroom experience has led to student success and even my own children are ‘expanding’ in math, although, as you’ll see, I can’t take full credit for that.

The Curriculum

Then and Now

Old school math was 100% procedural: learn your facts or else; memorize your formulas and you’ll succeed! New school saw a complete switch: it was all about conceptual understanding and application; problem-solving is the new basic skill! I suggest Now school: all three areas are important. Curriculum should provide a balance of procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and application. Interestingly, this battle between old and new school is not limited to math. Language arts has the same challenges with a war between phonics (old school) or whole language instruction (new school); however, educators are now realizing that we need to cater to both for students’ achievement (now school!).

So as a teacher or administrator, are you ensuring that your programme includes a balance of these 3 elements? Are you allowing time for daily routines and fact/formula building (deep practice) while also offering opportunities for authentic problem-solving (ignition) and using productive struggles to build understanding (masterful coaching)? Incorporating all 3 elements into your math programme will spark the talent in your young mathematicians and lead to greater achievement overall.

As a parent, you can also contribute to your child’s success at becoming a talented mathematician.  But first, you, your child and your child’s teacher need to believe one thing:

Math is a skill that can be built with a mixture of ignition, deep practice and masterful coaching.

Brain science shows that the more time and energy you put into the right kind of practice, the more your brain fires the right signals, which means the more myelin insulates those pathways and the result is more skill in that area. So, do you believe? If so, here are the basics according to Daniel Coyle’s book: The Talent Code.

A. Ignition

Whether you are a teacher or a parent, you need to build a skill philosophy. Teach your children that ability is a muscle that can be developed and that math is a skill, not something you are born with. Believe and practice a growth mindset. Model and praise passion, persistence, commitment; and value effort and slow progress over intelligence and speed. The outcome will be a child who isn’t scared of making mistakes, who is willing to take challenges, someone who works hard and whose perception of themselves is: I can do it!

B. Deep practice

All students who excel at math, practice math. This doesn’t mean buckets of homework and worksheets. It means a targeted, error-focussed practice that results in building skill and accelerates learning. “Operating at the edges of your ability, when you make mistakes – makes you smarter.” (Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code). Children must have and demand, a productive struggle or there is no learning and therefore no skill development. Instruction must be differentiated if you are to push each student forward in their learning.

Oliver burst into tears the other day because he was finding a math problem challenging. “Good!” I said, “Your brain is growing and sometimes it hurts!”. Rory on the other hand  was working on a task where he had to fill in a 100 chart with missing numbers. This was too easy for Rory. There wasn’t any learning. There was no point to the practice – no brain building or skill development.

“You will become clever through your mistakes”. Your brain craves errors, then it can slow down – refocus – adjust – refire and build more myelin and more skill. Demand that your child is challenged. That being said, your child needs the right level of challenge; if it is too hard – the brain goes into fight or flight mode and no learning will occur. This leads us to the last requirement: a great teacher.

C. Master Coaching

A master coach knows how to personalize learning; they provide exactly what your child needs exactly when they need it. They have a strong understanding of the subject and know how to go deeper and make connections. They understand the importance of repetition until there is automaticity, but they also recognize the importance of creating challenges that result in mistakes that need to be corrected. Finnish schools are known for producing students that are way ahead of all of us, in terms of achievement. Why? Because they invest in teachers. Nearly all of their teachers have a Masters in Education, but more importantly, “We know about the children”. (Why are Finlands Schools Successful) They are master coaches and they work hard to ignite every student that comes into their classroom. 

It takes nurture versus nature!

As a parent, you may be feeling that you have no control over your child’s ability to do math. On your own, you have little influence over curriculum and almost no control over the teacher they get. However, you have the most important role in lighting your child’s academic fire: you can foster the mindset that math is a skill that can be developed. You can teach them that their brain does not work in mysterious ways: the more they practice – the more skilled their brain becomes. You can ensure their talent is ignited by finding math mentors that they can emulate. You can ensure they engage in deep practice, by creating opportunities for targeted, error-focussed conversations about math. You can ensure they have a masterful coach by advocating that their learning is personalized and challenging. But most importantly, you can give them a lesson in positive psychology:

“The more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will.” Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage.

Want more advice on how you can build that mindset? Here are a few books on the subject:





One thought on “What does it take to become a talented mathematician?

  1. Great article Ann! I fully agree. As a teacher, it’s hard to find that sweet spot for each student of the appropriate amount of challenge. But when you do, the magic happens!


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