Framed report cards, the maths gene, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam are joined by special guest, Dr. Mario Trono an Associate Professor from Mount Royal University, Alberta, Canada. Why do people say they're less confident with Maths than other subjects? Plus, find out one of the reasons why Mario became an English Professor.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello. I'm Emily Guille-Marret.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is The School of School podcast Welcome to The School of School podcast.
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Welcome everybody to another podcast. And today we have Dr. Mario Trono, who is the associate professor at Mount Royal University with us. And we are looking forward to hearing what topics he's going to talk to us about today. So I hear there's an idea around the psychology of how we get into confidence in mathematics. Is that right?
Well, yes. And I mean confidence isn't based on nothing. It doesn't just fly into your world when you get a good math score and you begin to glow internally and externally, and you walk around all cock-the-walk, "Look, I've got 90% on a test so now I'm over flowing with confidence." It comes from where, and yeah, I'd love to talk a bit about that.
Mario, first off. Why don't you tell us who you are? Just so our listeners know who you are.
Yeah, sure. Yeah. Well, Mario Trono, Mount Royal University and of all things to be in a world, I'm an English and film studies professor, but one with a lifelong fascination as an amateur bumbler with how mathematical operations describe the world. I mean, how you can go behind a bush somewhere with a little tablet and do some sort of mathematical calculation and emerge knowing how tall a nearby tree is. It's just magic in my world. So I come at mathematics and science from that perspective as a gentleman amateur.
Bumbler, you said, right? I'll have to look that word up. I'm not exactly sure what bumbler means. I kind of know what it means, but it's a great word.
Oh, I'm bumbling about, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing. You wouldn't want me at the front of a mathematics classroom, but you would want me as an adult who can explain his math anxiety in blocks, because then you can kind of figure out where it might be for kids.
Can I jump in there, Mario? Because, just one thing really quickly. I know we're going to get onto the confidence building, those sorts of things, but what you've just described and that sort of curiosity about maths, has that always been there? Have you had it since you were like a wee boy?
Oh, well, yeah. And I'm going to mention a couple of things today about when I was a wee boy, because my math anxiety and my sense of discovery is really strong. Yeah. Because language always made sense to me. That's why I ended up an English professor. It just downloaded effortlessly into my mind, but I ran into just a wall with mathematics. When people could explain things in words, I just intuitively got it. And I could participate in the conversation. But when people went away with numeracy and began performing these strange rituals, they looked like magic formulas to me, that some sort of wizard might be using to cast some kind of spell. I always had a tremendous mental block with it. Hence the fascination. And I had just enough success with it early on that I was able to be in awe rather than terror.
Yeah. But a lot of people are terrified of math, right? Like, especially at the high school level, it really tends to be kind of a turning point, as like an inflexion point in high school where people go, "Okay. You know, like I could get this multiplication and addition and all the operation stuff, but I have no idea what anybody's talking about anymore."
Well, how was it for you? Did you have a kind of an anxiety yourself then or did it come fairly easily?
Me? Yeah. I'm not a good case study because I kind of just really didn't care if I'm honest.
Oh, that's a totally other topic right there. Caring in education.
For me education was kind of like, "Wow, you got to go to school because your parents tell you, you got to go to school and you get in trouble if you don't go." And that was really my experience with education. But look, I know, but going back to the confidence thing, I mean, I know and certainly in what I do now, I keep running into people who tell me, "Oh yeah. I really suck at math and..." There's just kind of like this fear. Like I don't have the math gene and I'm not one of those guys who gets it. So, I don't know. And then they're scared of it. I don't know why it's so scary. I mean, what about you guys? What about you, Emily? What did you experience with math?
I had terrible maths anxiety and it totally put the fear of everything into me. Although what I really remember was when my eyes opened to maths, not because I was learning it by rote or having to get through it because of fear. But because I was learning about the Renaissance in our history and suddenly that was a world that I could relate to. So when I was starting to understand about how the Fibonacci sequence could relate to a painting or looking at the vanishing point and the triangles and how the artists were using all of these amazing mathematical elements. The world of maths, I kind of felt like I've just missed my whole childhood of maths. Everything that I could have had all of this explained to me in a different way.
And so for me, I've always been intrigued, I guess, a bit like Mario, with the idea of how do you open the door to math? In the same ways, I guess, because of my background being in literacy publishing. It's like, how do you open the world of literacy and words? But, for me, it's how to do it with maths. And I feel incredibly, I'd still that confidence in maths and I'm always in awe of fantastic finance directors who can then make sure that my ideas are going to work commercially as well with me. So yeah, it's a frustration and something I don't want my kids to experience
Yeah. It's got to be avoided or you're just going to run into trouble. I mean, and you know what's fascinates me is the type of person who's actually very good at something, but still is utterly unconfident in their abilities.
And we all know that kind of person don't we? You come up to somebody, you say, "Oh, you just killed it on that. That's fantastic." "Oh, well, I don't know. I don't know." There's still anxiety and you go, "No, no, no, look, it's perfect. You gave everybody what they wanted. You found a new way to do it. You're demonstrating your learning of everything from the unit. That's great." "Well..." And so even though there's accomplishment, there's not confidence. So that's why I was saying it doesn't just come down to that test score.
You can get that validation, but is it going to, or do you have that deeper well of confidence that's going to allow you to act, operationalize what you're succeeding at in some kind of future programme. We've all known people who've kind of tanked their schooling or careers because of this debilitating self-confidence and I think it's because... Oh, and then we know the opposite of that kind of person, don't we? The person that doesn't know what they're doing, but they're completely confident and gosh, darn it. It gets them through. It's insane. Because they never give up. They're so confident in themselves that they stay in the game and sometimes they do a run up the middle in life and they're not even getting that validation of high test scores, but they do okay. Because I think it comes from a deeper identity thing. Do you see yourself as a successful person in the world? You know what I mean?
So look, Adam, you've got the most teaching background with young children. I mean, how do you harbour that confidence in young learners? Like, what can you do?
Well, I think just rewinding one step back. It's something you said Mario I found really interesting, right? So you're talking about maths and those people that might get it, can do it. All of the indicators are saying that it's a subject you should be comfortable with. I just wonder, and I don't know this to be true or not, but I just wonder with every subject, whether there's a sort of boundary of, "I'm okay." Like with English. "Yeah. I'm an okay reader. I enjoy it on holiday." With math, it tends to be a bit more sort of binary. I'm either good at it or I'm not. And I might just be on the cusp of being terrible. And I just wonder within some subjects that we are being told or society tells us that the range that you're allowed to be in it is far more limited in mathematics. That you can't have a middle ground.
You're either really good at it or you're not so good at it. And sometimes you're on the cusp either way. And so it's a tenuous position to be in because you just never know because it could just be one test and all of a sudden, no, that's you, you're on the scrap heat like the other people who have accepted. And you mentioned about the maths genes, Andy. The number of parents that when I've discussed maths about their children and they sort of turn around and say, "Oh no, but we understand why he's not so great at maths, because I'm not. And her dad's not, and his dad's not." It's kind of like, well, genetics might play a wee part, not that significant. We can't write kids off at five years old because mom and dad may have lacked some of the teaching skills. So I think maybe just at a sort of really broad level is that society's got to take a different view of it.
Like maths for fun or I'm okay at it, but I also know I can be a lot better if I practised it more or these sorts of things. But I just think there's a mindset with a lot of people, parents, teachers as well, and the children that is very narrow, very narrow. I can only be one or the other.
Yeah. You see that? There's an interesting thing there that happens with math that maybe doesn't happen so much with other topics. And that's how we assess it, and how we tell ourselves whether or not we're good at it. That tends to be very binary in the sense like, did you get the right answer or not? While in lots of other topics it's not about that. It's about what was the process that you used to get there, is more important than what you actually said. So like, I don't know if you're reviewing a book or something, no one's going to say "Look, you're wrong. You get zero." That doesn't happen. But in math it happens? Yeah. You got the wrong answers. Sorry, you don't know what you're doing. And then it's pretty brutal. So this kind of performance, this expectation of performance is different when we assess mathematics as opposed to when we assess other topics. And maybe there's a bit of that contributing to the anxiety.
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I think for sure, there's a bit of that. And just going back to something Adam said, when he was talking about the family members carrying forward a certain kind of narrative. I really think that when teachers end up having a kid that they sense is struggling with the subject matter because of a lack of confidence that it certainly is maybe time for a bit of counselling or an outreach to the family rather than just saying, "Oh, I can magically solve something that's not even going on in my classroom through just a different kind of teaching method." And I mean, I think when you have a... My favourite definition of identity is as follows. May I share it with you? It's just a beautiful sentence. Check it out.
No, you're not allowed to.
Oh, hell. Okay. Well, it's been nice talking everyone. Okay. So identity is the sense of one's self as a coherent and continuous force that matters in the world. Coherent and continuous force that matters in the world because they say that a lack of confidence and insecurity and low self-esteem can come from a fracture where you don't have this kind of coherent whole. So if you see yourself as a forward moving creature in life and that your life narrative mostly makes sense. There's not any ruptures like, "I'm bad at math," okay. Then you have this continuity, you have this coherence, you have significance. And that if you have this core identity, this core self concept, then you can turn to a new task, even in times of stress, because you've got that rock. Everything's not depending on the validation of, as you were saying, just a moment ago, "You got it wrong."
It's wrong. You've got this red mark now on your page. And now you have to take that back and factor it into your self worth. You can just sit now, that's very theoretical, but if we go back to what we were saying at the start about imagining that little kid in the classroom. Oh my goodness. Self narratives are so important for little kids, like if they screw up one soccer game, they come home, it's like, "I'm terrible. I'm a failure." They immediately start adjusting their own little narrative depending on the little failures. Are we going to at some point in time share little stories about us in primary school? Because that is ground zero for a life worth of confidence or anxiety.
Oh my God. Yeah. We talked about this in a previous podcast I'm sure. I kind of remember talking about it. Like my mom saved every single report card I ever received. Right from kindergarten all the way through to the end of college. And what a...
Did you put it in little frames and have a special box with Andy written on the cover?
Yeah. Well, something like that. Yeah. But it's interesting because it kind of like, it's a vision into your journey that maybe you don't remember clearly.
And then you look at it and you go, "Wow. That's what all these people thought about me. That's really interesting." Yeah. But that's another day. We were actually talking about that another day. But yeah, Adam, you never answered my question and I'm not going to let you off the hook. How do you get confidence into little kids?
I think one of the biggest things is, is that the message... Well, two fold. The first one is you're allowed to make mistakes and genuinely allowed to make them. Because if we say you're allowed to make mistakes, then a spelling test or a multiplication test goes home on Friday and we just see mum or dad, or whoever's picking up the child at the school gate and said, "Oh, they only got four. Hey, next week, can you just make sure they practise a bit more?" I just think we need to be mindful of what's the impact on that child. Because I think that... Okay, so that child's just made some mistakes and then I don't know, the whole knock on effect of that can be, mum and dad go home and practise that every morning with you and in the car and da, da, da, da, what do you got for?
And all of a sudden we can have this anxiety, right? So I think the first thing is we need to be genuine with being able to make mistakes across everything. Otherwise, the problem that we've got is that we say that and then we don't do it. And that happens a lot. I think the other thing is, it's the messages that we send really early on with our expectations. So if children first come into school and a teacher makes a decision that someone can't do that. Like you couldn't do this on Monday so I'm going to make an assumption that for the next week, I'm not going to let you do that. I'm going to give you something else and you're going to do something different and yes, you'll see your mates across the way.
And they'll be doing all the other stuff that you want to take part in, but you can't do it because I've already decided what you are capable of at the moment. And so there's a big difference between if someone's not capable of doing something and I help them and support them. Yeah. Of course, that's our job. But making assumptions about what children can do and then sticking to them. Like groups and schools that I have seen not just for a single year, but the same group, year upon year, upon year, getting a dumb down curriculum. And my mate was one of them. And every year he used to say to me, "Oh, guess who I've got? Yeah, I've got this teacher. Yeah. It's the..." And his words, "Yeah. It's the special needs teacher. So they don't expect anything from us. That's me. That's my lot this year."
So, that's pretty powerful. And, and whilst... And it's not lost on kids. Let's not pretend that they're doing that. Of course they do. Of course they do. My mate knew exactly he was waiting to be called out and who's your teacher this year and yeah, sure enough. And that would happen. And I just think that on a sort of a lesser scale, when we're talking about weeks months or whatever, if we are making assumptions about children and we are saying, "You aren't capable." This is the message that's being sent of achieving what your next door neighbour is doing. Then yeah, people will live up to that. And not only that, they'll start to believe it.
Adam, as soon as you started telling that story, I started having a cold sweat. Because I remembered in grade four, I got sorted. And my biggest point and pride was that I read books like a lunatic. My mom was an extraordinary reader and I felt expert at it. It was a big part of my identity. And we all had to put our hands up to try to get into the top reading group and the teacher went around and just kind of said, "You, you, you, you, you," and looked at me and said, "Not you." With actually a condescending tone of voice because I was so energetic and had my hand up in her face and was trying to say, "Me, me, me, me." And I hope I'm not being too dramatic here, but I think it's one of the reasons I ended up an English prof because I went off after that and doubled down on it. Just trying to get Mrs. Hirsh, who's now been dead many years to finally see that I should have been in the expert category.
You feel like Harry Potter with these little narratives from when you're very young shaping your entire destiny. You were quite right about that Adam. The kids, and you too Andy, the kids know. They know.
Oh yeah, no. And you know, Mario, that's like, and it's funny because I had this conversation with Ann many times and for me, that labelling of being a failure, which I talk about in my report cards. You go back and they all say the same thing. "Yeah. He's kind of clever, but he doesn't pay attention, makes a ruckus in class. Generally a trouble maker." In kindergarten, all through to college, that's basically that's the narrative. That's Andy, right?
Yeah. I'm consistent. So look, for me, the only reason I ever amounted to anything, I believe, is because I had built this thick skin resilience and tenacity and I don't care what you think about me. I'm going to do what I want to do. And I'm going to do as well as I want to do, regardless of what you think. That real kind of independence of mind is what drove me. Now I'm not saying that that's a route that we should be trying to build for everyone. That's not the path we want all kids to go down. This doesn't work most of the time. I'm just really lucky. Somehow the stars align for me at the right time. But those skills, resilience, tenacity, do we spend enough time focusing on those attributes in young children? Like saying, "Okay, look, yeah you made a mistake, but it's okay." Like what are we talking about? We're talking about tenacity, right? We're talking like, you can still try, you can keep going.
You kicked that football 10 times and you didn't hit the net once, but it doesn't mean the 11th time you're not going to hit it. And that kind of like resilience and tenacity. Like you can fail multiple times in a row and still win. It's possible. We don't build enough of that I think sometimes in kids, right? Last words. Go on Emily. What are your last words about confidence?
I'm going to say watch The Last Dance with Michael Jordan on Netflix, if you want to look at confidence, failure, and hope and everything else. And yeah, as you were saying that I was thinking that's the thing to pass on.
Well, I just thinking, you can say thinking of little kids in Harry Potter, you can think of it as magic. If you don't have confidence, just have it. And then you have it.
I think too. I think be confident to say you're not confident. Ask people, tell people, like our teachers. Tell them, "This is freaking me out. I don't know what to do. And every time I go in front of the kids, it freaks me out. So can someone help please? And then I won't freak them out, me out, anyone out." So yeah. Be confident to be confident. Something along those lines. Yeah.
There you have it. Math Confidence.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School podcast.