The Math Whisperer story began twenty years ago…

Bernice German and her colleagues developed an interesting hypothesis concerning what caused students to struggle in math. They noticed that the teach/reteach approach that assumed re-teaching the current set of lessons was the cure almost always failed to have much of an effect. Thus they reasoned that what was missing was not something in the current lesson plan, but something else.

That thinking led them to ask what the missing piece might be. They started the search for answers and a few years later landed upon a simple but powerful realization: students who did well at math could demonstrate a deep understanding of twenty or so mathematical concepts, while those who struggled could be shown to be missing one or more of them. Bernice and her colleagues realized they could prove their hypothesis through a relatively simple approach: determine which concepts were missing, teach those to a student, and see if somehow that made a difference.

The differences they noticed were much larger than they ever managed could be achieved with their approach. What happened was that students who filled in the gaps in their mathematical understanding achieved significant gains in areas other than those that made up the gaps. In other words, once the gaps were filled it allowed students to make sense of years of mathematics instruction that up to that point was a bit of a blur. It turns out that the concepts served as the last clue in an elusive mystery, one that as soon as it was known allowed math to finally make sense.

Bernice and her colleagues realized they were on to something special and began using the Math Whisperer approach in classrooms around the country, continuing a long string of successes in identifying and teaching the missing concepts, each time experiencing the types of gains they had come to expect.

Until one day they found an anomaly, something that worried them: a teacher who used the approach saw no gains. In fact, the students regressed during the year, which to that point had never happened. When they investigated they discovered what they took to be the cause: the students for any number of reasons didn’t believe they could do math and as a result didn’t try. Bernice and her team realized something at that point: the materials needed to help the students believe in themselves as well as be based on sound research. That proved to be the winning combination: students who believe in themselves using the Math Whisperer approach.

Bernice and her team set about re-designing each of the lesson sets with the notion that the first step for students is to believe in themselves, and the second is to practice on lessons that are known to fill in whatever gaps exist. Since that point the notion of making all the materials deeply respectful of a student so that they will want to work hard has been a hallmark of the Math Whisperer approach.