Reading has gotten a lot of love recently at Brilliant or Insane. As a math guy, I feel an obligation to restore some balance to the Force. Thus, I offer the following:
1. Let students ask (and answer) their own questions.
Instead of relying on the teacher, or the textbook (see next tip), to provide all of the questions, get your students to start asking some of their own. What are they curious about? What intrigues them about mathematical ideas you’ve been exploring? For a fun way to create engaging, thought-provoking questions, try using what I call iWonders. Here are a couple of examples:
- iWonder if Lincoln Financial Field were filled to the top with popcorn how long it would take the Philadelphia Eagles to eat it all.
- iWonder if everyone in Seattle got in cars for a road trip to Boston at the same time how long the line of cars would be.
2. Ditch the textbook and solve problems.
Last year, Mark Barnes wrote about his visit to a problem-solving centered classroom where students were actively engaged in mathematical thinking instead of drudging through page after page of worksheets and exercises. The students owned the work, and when they didn’t know the answers to something, they just kept at it and worked it out together. How powerful would that be in your classroom?
3. See math everywhere.
Math isn’t just about numbers and algorithms in math class. Math is everywhere, from video games to nature to poetry to current events to fashion design to food to music. I could go on, but I’d run out of room for the other five points. Short version, look everywhere, all day, for ways to connect with math. (And see tip #7 for the flip side of this.) Point out places where you see mathematical ideas that crop up in unexpected places. Create a space, either physically in your classroom, or digitally online, to capture, share, and celebrate the math you and your students find in the world. Once you start looking, you may not be able to stop.
4. Fill your classroom with mathematical toys and games.
Games, toys, and puzzles that require logic, sequence, patterns, and shapes give students opportunities to explore these ideas in highly engaging and non-threatening ways. Sometimes (but definitely not all the time), take the time to dive deeply into the structure and mathematics behind them. The game of NIM is a spectacular way for even very young children to begin to explore the math behind the rules of strategy games.
This may seem redundant after the last tip, but this goes beyond just playing games. Play with numbers and mathematical ideas. Math shouldn’t always be about relentless pursuit of a solution. Sometimes it’s good to just mess around and see what you find out. A great source of ideas for mathematical play is the Math Pickle site. In particular, check out the section of Unsolved Problems. Beware. Your mind may be blown. And who knows: your class may even win a million dollars.
6. Be OK with mistakes.
In a recent article in Time, mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg talked about how important trial and error are in real mathematics, and how we need to bring it back into math instruction. Mistakes are important, and we need to let kids make lots of them. They will gain much more by recovering from a mistake than they ever will by getting things right the first time.
7. Let math leak into other subjects.
OK, so this sounds like it’s just a repeat of #3. The difference is instead of just finding math where it happens to be lying around, look for ways to actively bring mathematical ideas into your instruction and conversations in other subjects. Science is easy, since math shows up regularly. But when you’re teaching about poetry, have students analyze the rhythmic patterns and try to decide if there’s a formula for poems that “sound good” compared with those that don’t. Or have them collect data about their performance in phys ed and use it to analyze their own progress, or even the effectiveness of different physical activities.
8. Learn to love math yourself.
I suspect that if you have tried all of the first seven tips, #8 may well take care of itself. But if you are teaching math but don’t like math, that attitude will leach out into the air in your classroom, and your students will spend all day breathing your distaste. If you are someone who really, truly doesn’t enjoy math but find yourself required to teach it, find something–anything–that you can like about it, and latch onto that. Actively explore these first seven tips in your own life outside of your classroom. Identify the things about math that cause you to cringe. Face those fears, and chip away at your anxiety so that when you’re with students, you can honestly convey positive vibes.
[This post originally appeared on September 10, 2014 at Brilliant or Insane.]