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Learning to Love Math - Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - Understanding and Planning Achievable Challenge

Willis begins the chapter by offering a few examples to demonstrate the frustration or boredom one might feel if not given an achievable challenge. One example – “you are dropped off at the top of a ski resort’s steepest run when you’ve only had experience on the beginner slopes OR you have to spend your day on the bunny hill when you’re an expert skier.”
She relates these examples to the students who either do not have the foundational background to understand new topics in class or to those who have already mastered the current concepts. To be engaged, students need relevant, achievable challenges which are difficult enough to hold their interest and make them exert mental effort, but do not cause them to be frustrated. According to Willis, achievable challenge is powerful, because each success leads to increased levels of dopamine in the brain, which is accompanied by a sense of pleasure and decreased anxiety in response to various stressors. Dopamine release also helps to increase memory (interesting!). Dopamine is released when the brain is aware of making a correct choice, and this correct response is more valued by the brain when the problem is in an individual’s challenge range. The intrinsic rewards of solving a challenging problem lead to reduced math negativity and increased resilience. Students start to see themselves as learners of math and they develop confidence, curiosity, perseverance, and interest. If students have a great deal of negativity toward math, support needs to be provided with the challenges so that failing is does not occur (at least not often). (Willis states that these types of approaches will be described in later chapters).
Willis discusses the learning aspect of video games – they are an example of the “…lure of achievable challenge because they help students reach personally desirable goals.” She believes that the video game model of incremental challenge, translated to the classroom, results in lessons that are satisfying, motivating, and designed to build mastery. Referencing Gee (2003), she states that some computer games can increase sustained focus, creative problem solving, and perseverance through challenge. Some games also teach skills that may not be in standard school curriculum, like teamwork, data analysis, decision making, and digital literacy. Willis states that we can develop academic lessons using the principles that make video game technologies compelling, and that we can use strategies to provide experiences and develop student goals based on individualized realistic challenges. Willis does acknowledge that creating individual plans with appropriate challenge for maximum brain engagement is time consuming. Instructional strategies include conferencing, encouraging student self-assessment and reflection, and providing specific timely feedback so students can make corrections (these strategies will be discussed later). However, she states that the extra planning time is rewarded by students’ successes, improved confidence and attitudes, and their achievement on standardized tests. Student classroom behaviors may also improve.
When students are successful at solving challenging problems, it should be celebrated, to reinforce the dopamine-pleasure response. To celebrate and maintain these positive memories, students can:
1) teach the new skill to someone else
2) keep a list of achievements in their math journals or write them on a wall chart
3) take a photo of the final achievement, even if it is just a well-solved math problem
4) write a note to their parents, with the teacher adding a comment
teachers can:
5) provide opportunities for students to transfer the new skills to new situations (Willis calls this “celebrate and cement”)
6) incorporate a record of progress as part of students’ ongoing assessment

(to be continued, otherwise this post will be way too long!!)



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