Math has gotten a bad rap. I would go so far as to say that many students love to hate math. No other school subject has the power to elicit as much chagrin from students, parents, and teachers alike. Even math’s old buddy English class now has a friendly name: English/language arts, which suggests creativity, spontaneity, and flexibility. Why has math become the outcast, even though it is a fundamental part of, well, everything?
Perhaps this is because in the history of the subject, there has often been little room for exploration. Many students think of math, with its rigid rules and formulaic equations, as a static process to find one correct answer in one specific way. They think of failing grades for wrong answers rather than the value of perseverance and learning through mistakes.
And if educators teach math in such rigid terms, it can indeed alienate creative thinkers. When I was in school, my math teacher worked out problems on the board while the class copied them. As a 10th grade algebra student, I figured out how to find an answer using steps other than the ones the teacher had taught us and proudly turned in the problem. I got a failing score for my correct answer. Because I deviated from the fixed process, I was wrong.
But this was creativity at its best in the classroom—the process of taking math out of its old dusty box and finding new ways to understand old formulas. When we are personally invested in what we are doing, motivation and engagement come naturally.
Now, as a teacher in my own classroom, I know that we must help students understand and explore the idea that math is so much more than numbers. They often forget that math is a part of everyday life that helps them create, whether that’s building and counting blocks, measuring ingredients for recipes, helping parents design a new garden in the backyard, or learning octaves on the music scale.
How do we do get students to stop simply relying on formulas and understand that numbers represent creative problem-solving techniques they can use to do so many things outside the classroom? More importantly, how do we as teachers make room for them to do so?
Here’s the good news: 21st-century learning has paved the way for teaching more than just numbers. In classrooms today, we have the power to give students the tools and support to think outside the box so they can design and collaborate with others. There are so many resources at our fingertips—computers and multimedia, student-centered activities, and open-ended questions—to make math more engaging.
For example, when my 3-year-old son plays with Legos, he does not want my input or assistance. He often won’t let me see his building until it is done. However, when he cannot figure out how two blocks fit together, he comes to me for help. Once I show him how the blocks connect, he is off on his own again, using the skills I taught him to continue his creation.
We should think of math in much the same way. Learning in an organized fashion helps ensure that all students build understanding step by step, creating prior knowledge that they can draw upon to figure out related concepts. But allowing them the freedom and creativity to experiment, to pull the pieces together in a way that works for them, makes all the difference.
Independence also builds confidence and encourages creativity. I use math centers nearly every day in my 3rd grade classroom, giving the students a chance to work in groups on different kinds of projects. They rotate through games they enjoy, such as “Go Fish” with math cards, collages or drawing projects with mathematical parameters, and computer-based software for designing colorful data displays. Encouraging students to solve problems using drawings instead of written equations can also help all types of learners understand the concepts.
We can also foster confidence in a subject that many students struggle with by allowing them to choose activities to demonstrate their learning. They light up at the chance to discuss their preferred strategies—ones where learners can see uses of math in real life.
I find my students are much more motivated to learn area and perimeter if they are building a pen for a dinosaur or using metric units to create a designer dress. A sports fan can explain team scores and predict wins; a baker can double a favorite recipe; a party planner can work out a budget.
Let’s help math take its rightful place next to the rest of the arts. By changing the way we think about, talk about, and teach students how to apply mathematical concepts and skills, we can help students build connections to math in everyday life—in the classroom, the community, and in the world.