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March

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Brain research is key to math education

Portrait of Dr. John Almarode
Dr. John Almarode

“I’m not good at math.” “My brain’s not wired to understand math.” “I’m artistic, so I can’t learn math.”

All myths, says Dr. John Almarode, assistant professor in James Madison University’s Department of Early, Elementary and Reading Education and co-writer, with Ann M. Miller of Waynesboro Public Schools, of “Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.”

“Everyone is capable of doing math,” Almarode says. “You’re born with certain natural abilities to process numbers, and numbers are a way we communicate.” Indeed, math is essential for survival.

“As we evolved, we had to know developmentally that there was one woolly mammoth, there are two saber-toothed tigers, there are six people in my family and I have this much food. So there are certain quantitative reasoning skills that have evolved in our brains over time,” Almarode said. “Where it starts to become based on experience and not natural talent are the more complex quantitative reasoning skills.”

That’s where early and better education comes in. “When students say, ‘I’m not good at math,’ it’s actually that their skill set wasn’t developed,” Almarode said.

Almarode will share strategies from his book and from his own teaching experience with fellow educators during the Virginia Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual state conference, which will be held at JMU March 14-15.

The conference, focusing on the theme “Unlocking the Mathematical Mind,” is expected to draw nearly 1,000 attendees from all over Virginia, according to conference chair Dr. LouAnn Lovin, professor of mathematics education at JMU. Participants include prekindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, mathematics curriculum supervisors, and community college and four-year university professors.

Almarode is joining three other featured speakers. Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, will present “Reasoning and Making Sense in Teaching and Learning Mathematics, the Most Important Standard!” Stephen Bismarck, assistant professor of mathematics education at the University of South Carolina Upstate, will present “Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning in the Mathematics Classroom” and Michael Bolling, director of the Office of Mathematics and Governor’s Schools, Virginia Department of Education, will present “The Importance of Connections and Reasoning in the Mathematics Classroom.”

Almarode’s presentation, “Unlock Young Minds in Mathematics by Engaging Their Brains,” will offer educators strategies they can try right away in their classrooms. Among his “lessons” from current brain research are three fundamental rules. “Our brains learn from simple to complex, not the other way around. We also learn from concrete to abstract. We only remember what we think about.” Along the way, he will give teachers tools for adding novelty and relevance to lessons to help students overcome their own myths of math.

“I like to offer information on how the brain works, strategies and the ‘why’ so teachers can adapt strategies to his or her own classroom – the one they know best.”

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March 12, 2014