Learn how his commitment to compassionate math teaching brought him to MATHstream.
While Robert Ahdoot believes that successful math learning begins with genuine connections between teachers and students, he also knows that a few good jokes never hurt.
In his 20 years as a math educator, Robert has reached thousands of students with his warm personality and belief that children learn best when they’re not anxious about math. He’s also delivered a TEDx Talk on conquering math fear and founded Yay Math, an organization guided by the idea that math learning can be fun and connective.
We caught up with Robert to talk about the future of math education, the role of tech in the math classroom, and, of course, his vast array of teaching costumes.
What led you to start Yay Math?
After many years in the classroom, I was able to predict the most common student questions and also what concepts gave students the most apprehension. I did a deep dive into where that anxiety came from and learned some interesting neuroscience in the process.
Basically, when students are presented with something they perceive as scary, the parts of their brain needed for math thinking shut down. And brains that are reacting in this way are merely trying to survive, so they can’t devote any energy to doing math!
After learning this, I wondered what I could do to help students feel less worried or stressed. Long story short, I ended up dressing up like a chicken, calling myself a “mathemachicken,” and making them laugh.
And you know what? When I showed up to class looking a bit absurd, most of my students forgot to be scared and were more able to do the math. This was the birth of Yay Math, along with my belief that math learning should produce joy and laughter—not shame and fear.
Along with "mathemachicken," you’ve dressed up as other characters in your classroom. Which character has been your favorite?
Of all the characters I’ve dressed up as the most iconic one would have to be the first—the mathemagician.
The theater department at my school let me borrow an amazing wizard’s robe with a long necklace, a poofy hat, and a velvet robe with stars on it. And all around campus, I stayed in character just to give my high-schoolers a good time and create some buzz about how the mathemagician was going to magically make their math fears disappear.
You have a TEDx Talk on conquering math anxiety. What’s one thing you would like all math teachers to know about this topic?
The one major takeaway from my TEDx Talk is that it’s rarely a question of whether students can or cannot do the specific math in question—or whether they’re smart enough, capable enough, or hardworking enough.
Teaching and learning math successfully has to do with, as backed by Stanford University’s research, whether or not those portions of the brain responsible for math functioning shut down when a student is confronted with a problem or concept.
It’s like trying to turn on a lightbulb during a power outage. If the power isn’t on, you have no idea if the lightbulb works or not, right? And if a student is in fight or flight mode because of math fear, asking whether or not they can do the math isn’t the right question. The right question is, “How do I help calm them down so their brain will let them learn math again?”
Is there anything else teachers can do besides reducing anxiety to get students engaged in math class?
I would encourage educators to really lean into the impact of a deep and meaningful connection with their students. Ask the students what they crave, and they will tell you. They want to feel seen, they want to feel heard, they want to feel honored. They’re not afraid of doing extra work, and they’re not afraid to be pushed. But they want to know that you’re their advocate and you’re not there to trick them or trap them.
They need to know that while you may throw them fastballs, you’re not going to throw curveballs.
That’s a great distinction. Now, on to MATHstream. How can it help teachers extend their reach in the classroom?
One of the most important things MATHstream does is help teachers address the big question on many people’s minds: Will technology replace me? The answer to that must always be no.
Technology is not seeking to replace those humans we trust to teach our children day in and day out, and it’s not trying to rob teachers of their jobs.
But there’s no shame in acknowledging that teaching is hard work—some of the hardest work out there, in fact—and it’s okay for teachers to ask for help. And MATHstream is a tool that will empower teachers and amplify their impact.
A second big question MATHstream will help teachers answer is the classic, “What level do I teach to in my classroom?” Sometimes teachers try to teach to the middle to get the most people engaged, but then, of course, some people will be bored, and some people will be lost. So do teachers aim higher? Lower? The permutations and dilemmas of this question are self-explanatory, right? And until very recently, it fell on teachers to try to reach every kid in a classroom whose needs and skills varied so widely.
Technology can help teachers accomplish this once-impossible task by giving everyone in a classroom what they need to succeed.
Once students get those first exposures to ideas through MATHstream, their teachers are better able to intervene and supplement in the exact way each student needs. MATHstream welcomes students into a fun and engaging math learning experience that makes them smile and gets them talking, and then teachers can channel that same positive energy and engagement to help students dive even deeper into the math.
Are you excited about MATHstream?
I am excited! Educators know where the future is. We see it unfolding all the time. We know that the need to teach at multiple levels is only getting greater. We know technology is getting more sophisticated, and funding for it is increasing. And we also know that tech at its best helps teachers do their jobs better. So, moving forward, it makes sense to equip teachers with the best possible tools.
And for me, the best tools feature engaging teachers, a group of educators I’m honored to be part of. And one of the main reasons we’re engaging is because we value connection with students, and we work hard to treat them with respect and gain their trust.
MATHsream is also a great tool because of its adaptiveness. The fact that 30 students could have the same entry point but then go on 30 different pathways is really empowering and also helps ensure that each student will get exactly what they need.
When I see the level of investment that Carnegie Learning has put in this technology, I’m astounded. They’re on the cutting edge of building tools that will let students move from any starting point to exactly where they need to be—and beyond.
It’s a tool that provides emotional connection, scholarly rigor, and technological sophistication rolled into one, and that, to me, is the future. And it’s an exciting one.
We’re thrilled to have Robert in our MATHstream family. His kindness, humanism, and passion for math shine through in his amazing lessons and in the time he spent chatting with us.
Want to learn more about MATHstream, our highly interactive, game-based video streaming program that adapts to students in real-time and motivates them to test new skills while teachers easily track student progress?
Come on in. We’d love to show you around.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author
Students need to know that while you may throw them fastballs, you’re not going to throw curveballs.
Robert Ahdoot, MATHstream Instructor and founder of Yay Math!