Making Math Relevant and Engaging

I noticed a theme while observing an educational math chat on Twitter.  Many of the participants spoke of how math and reading don’t necessarily have the same “emotional knee-jerk reaction” in education or at home.  One tweet I remember reading stated that there isn’t a math equivalent to reading a bedtime story, emphasis on reading.  As far as I know, there is no such thing as a math before bedtime.  Reading often takes precedence over math, especially at the elementary level.  Reading / Language Arts often requires or is mandated to take 1 1/2 – 2 times as much time as math. Don’t misinterpret what I’m writing here – reading is essential and absolutely needed.  I’m advocating for the math crowd – the people who despise hearing the words “I hate math” coming from anyone.  Math has received a stigma over time and there are even adults (you may be one of them)  who can’t stand thinking about math.  An interesting perspective comes from Michael Schultz in his recent blog post.  As you can imagine people dislike math for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, many adults remember math as one of the least favorite subjects in school.  Their math teachers were less than stellar and used (and only used) the text book for all math instruction.  How do educators and administrators decrease the negative stigma associated with math?  I believe removing the stigma starts before and during elementary school.  Educators need to make math relevant and engaging.  How does that happen at the elementary level?

Use Manipulatives

Educators understand the often use manipulatives to increase student engagement, especially when introducing a topic.  Looking back at my own experience,  the times I enjoyed or expressed interest in math were when my teacher used manipulatives in the classroom.  Using manipulatives creates student engagement, which often leads to increased learning.  I still remember using the base-ten blocks and geometric solids to learn math back in the day. A couple specific examples:

Base ten-blocks

Balances – Mathfour video

Use Technology

Students use technology everyday.  But teachers need to appropriately (that’s key) utilize technology to increase student learning.  Most curriculum publishers have a technology component (like math games or instruction slides to show students) already part of their program.  There is a wealth of knowledge and information available online for teachers to use.  Personally, I’ve used Youtube, Power Point, Audacity, Google Docs, Movie Maker, and Flip Cam regularly.  There are many more tools available to use – I just wrote down what what was used last year.  I’ve placed a few links below if you’re looking additional content. Using Google Docs

Multimedia in Mathematics - http://davidwees.com/content/presentations

Use Practical Examples and Show Relevancy

Students are much more motivated to complete problems that are relevant and applicable to their lives.  A student wants to know why they are learning specific math concepts.  If students aren’t sure about where or how to apply what they are learning, what motivation is there to stay engaged?  Finding practical math problems is important and gives students an opportunity to apply their learning.  Even having students create and solve their own problems is a good start. Students need to understand that what they are learning in math class is relevant.    I tend to show my students the following video from IBM.  Also, during the first week of school I generally show the students a macro picture of what they will be learning throughout the year and what skills that they will need to proceed through each unit.

IBM Math Commerical

I also ask the students the following questions:

  • Can I think of a story problem where I could apply this concept?
  • How will learning this help me in the future?

Play Games

Play games?  Are you kidding?  I think at times, educators and administrators downplay the importance of playing mathematical games.  Games give students an opportunity to use learned skills, such as, but not limited to:  numeracy, collaborative teamwork, and critical thinking skills. There are online math games and boardgames that are relevant to what is being taught in the classrooms.  For example, games like Battleship can help teach algebra quadrants and axis. An example: Board Games

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) :  The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.