An important element of critical thinking on any topic is literacy, or competence. Math is no exception. In order for students to gain a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, they must first become math literate. This means that students can apply mathematical reasoning skills to help them solve real world problems. It sounds like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be so grand. For young students math literacy involves knowing if they should use addition or subtraction to solve a word problem. This can transfer to the real world experience of biking to the corner store to purchase a treat, and making sure that the correct change was received. Older students will have more complex real world experiences, such as, earning enough money to purchase tickets for a concert. They can be encouraged to set up equations while problem solving.
Our job as teachers is to ensure that each student becomes math literate. The first step is to promote an expectation of success in math for all of our students. We have to believe that our students can do well, and then they will believe it too. Set up a culture of critical thinking on a variety of numerical topics. Invite students to create their own math problems, and to solve them. Set aside some class time for a discussion of thoughts about math. Tell students that there are no bad ideas, and watch the discussion grow. Even if no actual math computations are made, the discussion will reinforce the idea that math is important and that everyone can be good at it with practice.
Students need to understand that the mathematical language is important in conveying ideas, but math literacy goes beyond knowing terms. It involves a deeper thinking, the ability to view problems from multiple perspectives, and to apply previous knowledge to new situations. Giving our students the time and the skills to develop competence in math gives them the confidence for continued academic success.