Page Links
Feb 09

Understanding and Joy: Reflections from a Math Learner

Posted by Bank Street in Math Leadership on Feb 09, 2016

By Emilia Levitas 
Literacy Specialist at Midtown West 

For the first time in many years, solving math problems this semester brought me joy. As a graduate student in the Math for Teachers course at Bank Street, learning to teach mathematics for understanding rather than just computational proficiency required stepping back into the role of a math learner. This process was both daunting, as it brought back some negative childhood memories, and thrilling, as we reimagined math in a paradigm of teaching towards deep, flexible understanding of big mathematical ideas. Since experiencing the joy of solving a puzzling pattern called “The Up and Under Problem,” I have been thinking about constructions of joy and accomplishment in the classrooms I have worked in. I have been asking, What is the difference between joy and entertainment in the classroom? What brings true joy in learning? Can emotional experiences in the classroom really be separate from the learning processes going on (as I have seen some teachers assume)?

[youtube id=UoMXmLelRQ0 w=593 h=445]

The experiences and material of Math for Teachers have led me to think deeply about the emotional life of the classroom, and social-emotional learning as it relates to student understanding of the academic content they engage with. The emotional experience of not understanding something one is expected to understand can result in feelings of embarrassment, isolation, and/or inadequacy. The emotional experience of not even being expected to understand is more complex—it can involve the internalization of an authority’s viewpoint that one is inherently unworthy or incapable of understanding. This latter experience seems common in math learning, as a result from teaching procedures rather than understanding, as evidenced in the emotional baggage that my classmates and I unpacked around our math learning. 

Dozens of online articles have been written about “bringing joy into the classroom,” an idea which seems to have a different meaning for each teacher. Some hold the view that joy is a component of a classroom that can be increased independently of other factors, by adding entertaining competitions or games with prizes. This view assumes that learning is inherently uninteresting for students, and that external incentives are needed in order to make it exciting. Entertaining activities are sometimes attempts to compensate for the discouragement and alienation of learning math procedures without access to understanding mathematical ideas.

Real joy in the classroom comes from understanding. Marilyn Burns writes, “All of us (hopefully) have experienced the joy of accomplishment that comes from figuring something out in order to produce a satisfying result. When students are taught to make sense out of mathematics, they receive support for seeing connections between ideas. Their connections can lead them to further learning in ways that do not occur when learning is approached as a series of unconnected events” (Burns, 2015, p. 312). In addition to moments of personal accomplishment or new comprehension, joy can be felt during many different classroom situations, such as having a choice in activities, creating things together, learning through field trips, and more. These activities each entail a sense of classroom community, learners’ autonomy, and each child’s ideas and input being important to the success of the whole. All positive classroom social-emotional dynamics and power relations are necessarily preceded by equitable access to understanding. Understanding is therefore the foundation for the many different kinds of learning experiences that are genuinely joyful. Through embracing my role as a math learner, I have come to realize that the social-emotional life of the math classroom, and of individual students within it, are intricately connected to how teachers prioritize their students’ mathematical understanding. What kinds of experiences lead to joy through understanding in your classroom? How can we best guide children who may be disinterested in math towards the joy of understanding?


Burns, M. (2015). About teaching mathematics: A K-8 resource (Fourth ed., p. 312). Sausalito, Calif.: Math Solutions/Scholastic.

tagged emilia levitas, math for teachers, midtown west
blog comments powered by Disqus