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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Not Good At Math? There’s a Museum For That!

By Peter DeWitt — October 16, 2012 4 min read
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Recently I read an article based on the book Faster Isn’t Always Smarter (2009) by Cathy Seeley. Seeley stated, “Certainly as part of a complete and balanced mathematics program it is useful to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly, and it is important to know basic addition and multiplication facts without having to figure them out or count on your fingers. But asking students to demonstrate this knowledge within an arbitrary time limit may actually interfere with their learning.”

I’m one of those people who loved flashcards and doing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at a fast rate. Many students, however, freeze when it comes to timed tests. They worry that they will not do well and their anxiety takes over and masks their performance. As a result of those timed tests students may begin to dislike math.

Seeley goes on to say, “Some students never survive this experience and they turn away from mathematics for years, sometimes forever. Having experienced timed tests when they were students, many adults believe that accurate, fast computation is the most significant part of mathematics. When pressed, many of these adults who dislike or fear mathematics attribute these negative feelings to experiences from their school years, especially the use of timed tests.”

Although children may love flashcards and reciting math facts at a fast pace it is at risk of ending when they enter into harder math problems. Sometimes kids just don’t get it. It may be a combination of insecurities and math teachers who teach out of a text. It’s very easy to rip a page out of a workbook and set kids out on the road to self-discovery in a boring and rote way.

As a school principal I enjoy walking into classrooms and seeing real inquiry-based math experiences. I have seen teachers push desks or tables to the side of the room and tape the floor to teach perimeter. Experiments that take a month because kids take math quizzes on different colors of paper to see if they score better with one color over another. They take their results and create broken scales to show their results. I have seen teachers use baseball to create enriching mathematical experiences.

Kids need an environment which is rich with math experiences. They need to be surrounded by manipulatives they can touch and inquiry-based learning they can see and feel. Math needs a make-over because it’s a lot more fun than kids may think. There is such a place coming soon and it’s an actual math museum.

Not a museum where you have to view things from the other side of glass. It’s an interactive museum that will help foster a love for math. In December, MoMath is opening up in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. According to MoMath, “There will be more than 40 exhibits and activities contained within MoMath’s 20,000 square feet including things like: Feedback Fractals, which uses ordinary video cameras to produce intricate and beautiful infinitely repeating patterns, and a Wall of Fire, where visitors interact with a room-high plane of laser light to discover the hidden shapes lurking in everyday objects.”

A MoMath spokesperson said, “These interactive exhibits are designed to present mathematical experiences that stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of math to all ages.” MoMath is going to create a math smack-down and thousands of kids will walk away finding a love for the subject.

Losing Our Creativity
In The Creative Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kyung Hee Kim from the College of William and Mary states “Children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”

That’s a really depressing statement! Students need rich experiences that will give them a deep understanding of concepts. But what if they can’t make it to Manhattan? How can teachers use what MoMath is teaching? One of the ways is through virtual learning with the museum that will be available sometime after the museum opens. At that time, teachers will be able to cruise through and see what the museum has to offer.

However, a better way is through taking the ideas of the museum and making them a reality in the classroom. Despite what reformers and random people from Google may think educators really are innovative. They walk into a classroom of 25 - 30 eight year olds and have to engage them all day long. That takes innovation!

Math is more than flashcards and rote memorization. If teaching is done authentically and with passion, math can engage students and give them a different perspective on their world. And if you live close to New York City, you should give MoMath a try when it opens in December.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.