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Building Math Confidence Through Movement Exploration

I have few childhood memories of feeling confident in math. In the days when I excelled at addition and subtraction, math lessons were fun. However, math quickly shifted to more complex and abstract concepts that I struggled to understand. The fun and confidence I had felt as a primary student eroded away like an escarpment disintegrating beneath the pounding waves of the ocean during a violent storm. 

Sound traumatic? It was.  

By Grade 5 I was convinced I was math incompetent, which coincides with another memory. This one involves my dad. He was a wonderful parent but a terrible teacher. He excelled at math and lacked the ability to share his knowledge in a way that I could understand. One afternoon we were sitting on the floor of my bedroom reviewing long division. I had tried numerous times to complete a problem to no avail. My dad started to get frustrated and I cried out, “I don’t understand!” My dad retorted, “I don’t understand why you don’t understand!” I burst into tears and he stormed out of my room. 

More trauma. 

High school math almost did me in. By Grade 10, I was close to failing. My mother recommended I go to school every morning for extra help. And so, I did. I spent weeks on end working through problems in a textbook. Pencil to paper, I would pore over algebraic formulas. I would take every completed problem up to my teacher for a check and to ask questions. While I didn’t excel, I did pass the course. Yet, I was completely and utterly miserable. By Grade 11, I couldn’t wait for math classes to end. Once I had taken all of the required courses to graduate, I stopped. 

Freedom! 

Yet, the years of trauma I had experienced were deeply stored in my psyche and in my body. After graduating university with an Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree I would have dreams that my degree was temporarily revoked until I completed a math exam. The dream was always the same. A very tall and stern looking man would hand me a giant textbook. He told me that I had one week to learn the contents of the book and pass the exam to reinstate my B.A. At that point, I would wake in a sweat with my heart racing. 

Embodied trauma. 

Several years passed. The dreams subsided and I went on to pursue more university degrees in education and the arts. While I was completing my Ph.D., I was also working in teacher education as a dance specialist. A professor reached out to me by email to ask if I would be willing to offer a workshop to her students on integrating movement with math. I remember feeling terrified by the idea. The trauma of math came rushing back to me in a flood of memories. I asked myself how I could possibly offer a math and movement workshop with so little math confidence or knowledge. Yet, before my brain was in motion, my fingers had already typed back “Yes.”  

It was time to face the trauma. 

I ended up calling my cousin who is a dancer and math teacher. I was in a panic. Why had I said yes? She started to explain how intricately connected math and dance are. We talked about how the body moves in space which supports learning about spatial reasoning, directions, pathways, and location. I made math connections to choreographic structures, timing, and movement patterns. We also talked about geometry and shapes. The more we spoke the calmer I felt. I then contacted the math professor and told her the truth about my fears. She was incredibly compassionate and understanding. We agreed to create the math and movement workshop together for her students. 

Success! 

It has been several years since I taught that first workshop. Through my own understanding of the body and dance, I have gained much more confidence in making connections to math. I have come to realize that my struggles as a child had little to do with being incompetent and all to do with how I was taught. As a highly creative and intuitive person who learns best through kinesthetic experiences, sitting at a desk with pencil to paper stifled my growth and understanding. Had my teachers provided opportunities for math to be experienced through the body,  I might have had greater success. I now know that there is never only one path to a final destination. 

Key points for math and movement integration: 

  • Math trauma is all too common an experience for students. Differentiated instruction allows diverse learners the opportunity to comprehend mathematical concepts in new ways for greater academic success. 
  • Learning math through movement is fun for all and necessary for some. 
  • Teaching math through movement does not have to be complicated or overly time consuming. Math lessons can be a balance of movement exploration and thinking through problems while sitting. The key is to decide what might support deeper comprehension. Seeing and feeling something can help work through abstract ideas. Once they are felt in the body they can be processed by the brain. 

For more information on math and movement, I invite you to watch the most recent Body Talk with Professor Susan McNab Ep11: Math and Movement Connections: A New Way of Learning (published October 21, 2020).

Traci L. Scheepstra, Ph.D., is the CEO/Founder of Embodied Learnings. Want to know more about her work in education? Read here!

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