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what is compassionate math

Compassionate Math is the idea that learning mathematics is both an intellectual and emotional challenge – you can’t move forward intellectually if you don’t address negative emotions.

A person’s negative emotions are not due to their own personal flaws. The American Educational system (as a whole) carries with it many factors that has contributed to how we learn math in today’s classroom. The Cold War, Civil Rights and school funding, overwhelming teacher education programs, and requiring accountability in schools without properly supporting teachers have all shaped the modern classroom. This has led to the cycle of Benign Neglect (see more below).

Many students (and teachers) are math anxious, are taught that they are not “math people”, are made to feel like they don’t belong in a math classroom, or have negative feelings towards math. The Compassionate Math framework supports math teachers and learners to understand that many societal factors affect how people currently feel about math and their math performance. In other words, your feelings towards math aren’t necessarily your fault. Compassionate Math will help you work through the emotional and content challenges to support a more positive math learning environment.

Dr. Geillan Aly

The cycle of benign neglect

A little history lesson: In the early 20th Century learning math focused on teaching basic math skills that would be useful in life and in the mostly industrial jobs people would do. Arithmetic and geometry were big areas of focus. German and Nazi scientists came to the US and helped spearhead and create the missiles and bombs which helped the Allies defeat the Axis. These scientists were invaluable because their science and math education was vastly superior to the Americans’. Conversations and new math curricula were developed to incorporate modern topics and more rigor in math classes.

Then on October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite into space. This was the political and public relations tool which triggered funding and support for the newly developed curricula. The US couldn’t ignore that in order to compete, education needed to radically change to focus more on STEM. Sound familiar? New Math was the result. However, New Math was introduced and teachers who had never really seen nor grew up with a more abstract mathematical curriculum had difficulty teaching it, especially because they didn’t receive adequate support in learning the content. Sound familiar? Uproar and rejection pushed educational policy to literally go Back to Basics in the 1970s (yes, that’s what the policy was called).

The pendulum has swung back and forth from emphasizing basic skills and “practical math” to focusing on abstract or algebra-focused content. Generations are disconnected from one another. What was familiar to you was likely unfamiliar to the generation before (your parents and teachers) and after (your children). So parents and teachers see unfamiliar and unknown content and freeze when trying to help children. Depending on when you or your parents or teachers were born, disconnects in learning could have very much affected how well you were taught math or how confident you feel teaching someone learning something that is unfamiliar to you.

The Cycle of Benign Neglect says that constant changes to educational policies on learning math, without giving teachers the opportunity and space to learn math content in a supportive and nurturing way, prevents lots of teachers from being confident and amazing when teaching math. Teachers are handed new curriculum without sufficient support to understand the concepts and are expected to meet expectations set by others. Teachers do the best they can, and the next generation reckons with different content and different expectation, again without sufficient support. If a teacher happened to have lucked out and feels comfortable with math content, then it is possible that they never felt the negative emotions which block math learning and may not realize that their students carry negative emotions which must be addressed. This is the Cycle of Benign Neglect.

The consequences of the Cycle of Benign Neglect is a country of people who are overly math anxious, aren’t comfortable with math, and do not feel that math is an approachable or do-able subject. Moreover, our society feels that this is somehow okay. If you can’t read, that may be a source of shame; if you don’t know algebra, that may be a source of pride.

Follow this link to see a talk on the Cycle of Benign Neglect through QoreInsights. I’m sorry it couldn’t be embedded.

Geillan Aly and Compassionate Math are featured in the Mathematical Association of America’s MAA Spotlight.

MAA Spotlight with profile pic of Geillan Aly

Compassionate Math was the 2021 Institute for Education Innovation’s Supes’ Choice winner in the Most Innovative Professional Development Category.

learning math is emotional and intellectual

Mathematics may seem unemotional, but it isn’t. For many of us, math is ripe with negative emotions which has affected how we relate to the subject. When you are put on the spot to do a math problem, does your heart race? Do you have negative feelings towards math? Do you remember being told you weren’t good enough, or this wasn’t for you? Do you dread teaching your math lesson? Are you overwhelmed with the never ending list of rules and procedures for every type of problem? Are you afraid that someone is going to ask you a question that involves math (remember having to split a bill without using an app)? Do you worry that your children do not have positive experiences with math?

Math learning is both emotional and intellectual (cognitive). At Compassionate Math, there is a fundamental assumption that without addressing the emotion, the cognitive can never be improved. I work with teachers, parents, and students. I can help each group work through the emotional challenges of learning and teaching math so they can be their best mathematical self. The idea is to use research-based techniques to balance the affective (emotional) side of learning math with the content-focused, rigorous side. This includes thinking about issues of anxiety, and efficacy/identity (“I’m not a math person”) but also about equity and social justice (under-funding some schools, assuming someone can or can’t do math) and how that contributes to limiting the mathematical achievements of some.

More than anything, at Compassionate Math I recognize that a lot of your negative feelings towards math are due to lots of factors that have nothing to do with you personally. Plenty of students have worked hard and did all they were told to do, but still freeze. The emotional limitations anyone has about learning math are extremely complicated and nuanced. Moreover these reasons are usually due to external forces. In other words, it’s not your fault that you are having a hard time understanding math. It makes sense that no matter what you do, you still feel like math will never make sense.

eliminate negative feelings towards math and Work through your math trauma

At Compassionate Math, I understand that your previous math learning experiences may have negatively impacted how you feel about math. Now you’re in a place in life where you need stronger math skills, or stronger confidence in your mathematical abilities. You’ve realized that learning math is important to reach your goals. I can work with you to help you relate to mathematics and see it in a new way.

Founded by Dr. Geillan Aly in 2021, Compassionate Math works to help you understand why you are having difficulty learning mathematics. The Compassionate Math framework recognizes the emotional side of learning math and helps you work through your previous experiences so you can be more successful in mathematics. Using research-based techniques, and with a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, you and I will work together to ensure that you are comfortable and successful in math. My methods and techniques help you understand the emotional side of learning mathematics to remove any blocks you may have which has stopped you from moving forward. I will also help you understand the content so you are not left to struggle on your own.

Compassionate Math will help you take control of the emotions that overwhelm you when you’re thinking about math. You’ll be able to focus on the math without your emotions getting into the way so you can understand the material and ensure your success as someone who does mathematics.

A little about me

Dr. Geillan Aly is a mathematics educator and former award winning Assistant Professor who received her PhD in Teaching and Teacher Education and a Master’s in Mathematics from the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on the emotional side of learning mathematics and includes how computer-centered learning has affected students’ abilities to control their learning environment and how meditation may reduce mathematics anxiety. Dr. Aly has been teaching at the university level for over ten years and, without sacrificing rigor, brings a personalized math learning experience to the classroom through active learning methods and by centering students’ emotional well-being. She is very familiar with the Common Core Standards and has experience teaching mathematics to Middle and High School students. Underlying all of Dr. Aly’s teaching and research is a dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice in mathematics education. She enjoys traveling, seeing live music, and is an avid chef. Geillan is also a wife and mother of a beautiful boy. They live near Hartford, CT.

I’ve been there

I’ve been where you are. I took classes where I was afraid to ask and answer questions. I’ve had instructors who were brutal. I took classes where my palms got sweaty. I almost walked away from my career because of it. I spent a lot of time trying to understand why suddenly math became impossible when I thought math was easy and enjoyable. It wasn’t about how smart I was, or how much effort I put in, there was so much more.

It took a long time to overcome these challenges. Now I want to help you so you don’t experience what I did. Using research-based techniques, you and I will work together to ensure that you are comfortable and successful in math. My methods and techniques help you understand the emotional side of learning mathematics to remove any emotional blocks you may have to help you better understand your content. There is a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in this work because there are explicit and well-documented reasons why women and people of color are not successful in math – none of them having to do with how smart someone is or how hard they work. I will also help you to understand the content so you are not left to struggle on your own.

Compassionate Math will help you take control of the emotions that overwhelm you when you’re thinking about math. You’ll be able to focus on the math without your emotions getting into the way and eliminate your negative feelings towards math. Understanding the material will then ensure your success as a doer of mathematics.