When I look back on my own mathematical education, I have many people to thank for helping me develop productive mathematical habits of mind. I remember walking to the car with my dad on a bitter cold day on the way home from kindergarten, and I just had to understand how you could do subtraction with regrouping. Instead of brushing off my pesky questioning (and I was pesky), he explained it to me, writing in the frost on the car window to illustrate the ideas. Some years later, Linda Agreen, my Advanced Placement calculus teacher, made sure that I understood why the fundamental theorem of calculus was fundamental, even though that was not going to be on the AP test. These habits of seeking real understanding were solidified in the mathematics department at Spelman College, under Etta Z. Falconer and her colleagues.
Building on the foundation laid by my father and my other mathematics teachers, I learned the mathematical habit of doggedly pursuing a complete understanding of ideas. I also learned how to recognize when my understanding was not complete and the reasoning skills to address the situation.
Unfortunately, too many students of mathematics, whether in college algebra or abstract algebra, do not possess these productive mathematical habits of mind. Instead, they have picked up some bad habits along the way: a tendency to look for the quick answer, a lack of persistence when the answer is not obvious, memorization over understanding.
Why do I keep referring to reasoning skills as “mathematical habits of mind”? Because I believe that if we start thinking about these unproductive practices as habits of mind, it opens up a different set of strategies for addressing the problem. When Al Cuoco, Paul Goldenberg, and June Mark introduced the concept of mathematical habits of mind (The Journal of Mathematical Behavior 15, no. 4 ), it was a powerful concept for rethinking K-12 students’ learning of mathematics.
Habits are behaviors we engage in unconsciously, but they are the result of a long evolution of choices we make at a young age. Habits of mind evolve from the choices that we make about how to think about ideas. Thus, my dad’s early intervention was important. At 5 years old, I was still making choices about how to learn. So were my teachers—in elementary school, high school, and beyond.
But too few students develop the habits of mind needed for more advanced mathematical learning. Presented with a problem with no obvious example to follow, a poorly trained student might start writing things down or try some calculations with no real strategy in mind. Faced with the task of learning to write proofs, a person without sound mathematical habits usually attempts to memorize various arguments instead of re-creating them from their internal logic. These habits may have served them well previously, but no longer.
Habits reflect what a person is likely to do in a given situation, especially a stressful one such as taking a test, and habits are notoriously hard to break. Smokers know that continuing to smoke has a high likelihood of leading to cancer and other diseases, but that knowledge alone is rarely sufficient for those who are trying to quit.
With this in mind, we need to ask whether the way mathematics is currently taught reinforces bad habits of mind. Is it too easy to get by for too long using bad mathematical habits? And where did these bad habits come from in the first place? The likely answer is that there are some entrenched teaching habits in need of attention.
Thinking in terms of habitual behaviors conjures up powerful analogies. How might we change our approach to learning—and teaching—math if we labeled as “unproductive habits of mind” those methods that serve us poorly? Just like the person who finally replaces smoking with a healthier habit—or better yet, who never starts in the first place—we will all be better served with healthier mathematical habits of mind.
Karen King is the former director of research for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She has been a member of the mathematics education faculty at New York University, Michigan State University, and San Diego State University.
This article was published in the April 2013 issue of Math Horizons.