Do you remember the students in your class who seemed to live for math? They just seemed to be gifted. They did extra problems, and seemed to be genuinely excited for a new lesson or by figuring out a solution or a connection to an old one.
And then there were many of the rest of us for whom math was a required subject that didn’t feel all that relevant to our regular lives. “But honestly, Mrs. Webster. When am I going to need to know the difference between a rhombus and a parallelogram and a trapezoid?”
But if you take a look at the people for whom math seems the most natural, typically, they genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps they enjoy the practice of fitting a new math concept into an evolving database of mathematical truths that frame their world. Perhaps they like the challenge of memory recall. Maybe they like to solve puzzles and find it extremely satisfying to getting to the right answer.
Sometimes, it’s the application of the math that seems the most compelling to them. Engineers or physicists-to-be may enjoy thinking of the world geometrically or algorithmically because it allows them to exploit the science that makes their investigations possible.
There is at least one thing that all of these perspectives have in common: there is a thread of true enjoyment. This likely comes from having a task with a clear reward proposition at the end. This makes enjoyment possible and allows the challenge to be fun and/or meaningful.
Kids who do well in math are usually the ones for whom math is fun. The right balance of challenge and possibility, mixed with a dash of meaningfulness can make math rewarding, and therefore engaging. Think of the things you most enjoy doing―not just when you’re relaxing, but when you really feel engaged, in your element, the most satisfied. Chances are you have a similar balance of these three: challenge, possibility, and meaning.
At Mentorhood, one way we foster this is by engaging students in math through games. Games have built in reward systems that learners can care about. Solve a question, get a point. Roll the dice, hope for a good result. When there is a reward at hand, such as a bit of friendly competition, a race, or a personal challenge, it gives students the opportunity to invest. Investment gives the activity meaning, and this in turn makes it engaging.
We have full-year clubs that are dedicated to playing through the mathematical concepts of each grade level through games―and certainly, these are always popular and a blast. We also keep in mind the concept of gamification when we are designing our full-year instructional programs. Our class materials are varied, sometimes including mazes, diagrams, games, matching, and pictures. Moreover, it’s easy to spot the increase in challenge from the beginning of a lesson to the end of it, giving students the feeling of “leveling up.” And our small classes facilitate an environment where the teacher is engaged with each student, allowing each student to feel like the material is possible to engage with.
Math should be fun. For the people who are the best in math, it’s usually the people who find the most fun in it. They may find a level of fascination with the immutability and the complexity of mathematics, or they may find a valuable end in it. To put it simply: math matters to them.
We make our classes as engaging and fun as possible to make it as easy as possible for our students to find something that matters to them in the math. This can bridge the gap between math that feels distant or intimidating to something that is a part of their world, something that they can take on and master little by little.
It’s rewarding for us as educators to see students really get something out of their math lessons, whether it’s the pure joy of winning a game, the thrill of a revelatory moment, or simply the sheer pride we see in their smiles when they get a question they didn’t think they could.
For some of them, we may be opening the door for them to start to love the beauty of math itself. For others, we may be one step in a journey of self-discovery and a trust in themselves and their own abilities, and a willingness to engage with their world. At Mentorhood, we believe that math matters for our students, and that fun matters, too, because ultimately, it’s them―our students―that matter the most.
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