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Was Math Your Favorite Subject?: Learning to Make Mathematics Fun (and Applicable)

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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I admit it: Math was not my favorite subject in school. What was? Science. Why? Because I love animals. I love the trees and mountains and oceans and deserts; I love to watch the patterns of change in nature. I marvel at the diversity of life that has evolved on this Earth.

Still, math captured my attention, if not my interest, because in elementary school, a teacher told me that math was a tool of science. Well, then, better learn math and at least get a decent grade!

However, when I was in elementary school, I was taught math one way: through algorithms -- solving equations step by step -- in which there was one right way to get to the answer. I was okay at memorizing the steps, so I did well on math tests. I admit, though, that I never really understood the conceptual underpinnings of how math works or why following these prescribed steps led to the answer. I was one of those students who memorized for the test and then promptly forgot the math. Why? Math was not taught in context, and I never really figured out how to apply it fully to science.

Do you know if your students truly understand how math works or how they can apply it in the real world? Do you want them to like math? If so, take a hint from some great teachers who've integrated mathematical thinking and concepts with other subject areas. They teach math through solving problems in the context of real-world projects or problems:

Professional Development Adds Up: Integrating Integers Across Disciplines

Geometry in the Real World: Students As Architects

Leapin' Lizards!: Students as Data Collectors

Have great ideas about teaching mathematics? Share your story.

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jerry Kuhn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My wife (who has taught middle school and now teaches high school math) laughs at my description of algebra as a red hot spike being driven through my forehead. Long strings of numbers can make my eyes gloss over, but my high school algebra teacher told my mom that I made really nice looking graphs. It wasn't until I started studying and teaching Technical Graphics which includes Engineering Graphics, CAD, and Architecture that I fell in love with geometry. I can better understand math when I can play with it visually: then the numbers and formulae start to click for me. Algebra still hurts (a little) but working with and thinking about how to teach concepts like dimensionality, scale, symmetry, and the illusions we create through modelling concepts, through drawings has definitely made me appreciate much of the math I barely understood in high school.

Patricia A. Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a music teacher. But I love integrating math in my teaching every chance I get.

For first grade, I do musical addition, in which I teach them basic note values.

Quarter note = 1, half note = 2, and whole note = 4. Then we do a set of addition problems that are normally quite easy for all of the children. They really liked doing this, and I look forward to doing this as review in September, before teaching them how to place notes on the five line staff. (Don't worry; we'll add those up too! I tried this lesson with my Kindergarteners but they were still a bit confused. I think they weren't quite ready for the representational thinking it involved.)

Once the children have mastered these ideas (along with the idea that the top number in the time signature tells how many beats in a measure), then we start dealing with fractions in music. The time signature is basically a fraction! :)

The bottom number represents a particular note - 4 in a time signature represents a quarter note, 8 represents an 8th note, etc. 1 represents a whole note, even though, when you count beats, the eighth note only gets A1/2 of a beat, the quarter note gets 1 beat, and the half note gets 2 beats. It can really drive them crazy, but once they get it, they have a lot of fun with it.

I do not teach beats divided into threes - compound rhythm - until fifth grade, since that can confuse them quite a bit, counting wise. (3/8, 6/8.9/9 and 12/8 are examples of compound rhythm). This introdues the dotted quarter note, which normally would receive 1A1/2 beats in simple (4/4, 3/4 and 2/4, for example) time. However, in compound time, it receives one beat, and each beat in compound time is divided into three eighth notes, instead of the TWO eighths a regular, undotted quarter note is divided into, in simple time.
(the dot adds A1/2 of a beat to the note it is appended to, for those of you who are not music readers)

Anyhow... I was unable to do ANY Algebra until I was nearly 25... go figure.

I'm going to watch this space for more ideas on how to incorporate even more math into my music teaching. Our school really emphasizes incorporating core teaching into the specialty areas, and vice versa, something I truly enjoy doing. The kids like these sorts of lessons, as well. Some who earlier may not have quite understood a concept really enjoy doing the music math!

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Gosh, math was not my favorite subject either. But we are talking school textbook math. I might be one of the few people who loved the new math, problem solving, exploration of numbers and all of the Cuisenaire materials. Like most people, I had mundane math. I can't remember it being a problem, algebra was ok, but I LOVED geometry a lot. Haven't used it for much, but it was easy to prove and memorize ... here's the problem.

Sadly in many schools in America we teach math a mile long and an inch deep and it is often based on doing 200 of some kind of problem in each section to show that the student can do it. But wait.. there's more.. more drudgery in repeating problem after problem. Arrrrgh.

I used to get a stomach ache when I had to give kids the tests that had problem solving , real problem solving as a part of their IQ framing. For the first thing, we never taught real problem solving, and then admit it, how many math books have you finished. I mean FINISHED.

Never mind that testing is in late February. It makes you want to jump up and down in front of the school and carry a sign.. I am still teaching they are testing now and It is just after Christmas already. It is not the end of the year!!!! But what we do is to try to cram it all in
I used to know what the last chapters were, measurement and so on. We never got there. I am sure we made the students nervous even if they knew math with our panic. Sometimes the "soothing' talk from the principal to the class also was nerve generating.

Technology appears...

Then, there was technology. Simple technology, games and puzzles. Thinking things...
there were ways to build in practices about thinking. It started with MECC.. when there was license to allow teachers to have lots of programs as tools. I started to see that there were children who learning best in gaming ways.I happened to have technology a little bit in the classroom,but a lot in a job that I had on Saturdays teaching kids I had never met except in a computer classroom. I had no idea of their skills , tests, I just learned you can really, really teach lots of things in games, simulations and with the use of problem solving.

Cuisenaire rods.. what wonderful wooden technology. At first I had the little handouts that went with them , and lo, I got it. Of course the rods went in and out of favor, but I hid mine away, even when they were threatening to confiscate them for Kindergarten ( well I paid for my rods so it was perfectly legal) . The students had to think to solve multiple problems with those wooden rods and the learning was transferable and memorable. I had them a couple of generations before a principal threw them out during the summer as junk.

We also had a program, which was on Prime numbers.Prime number generator.. While talking about prime numbers at the chalkboard could put students to sleep, the magic of trying to beat a computer program which asked you a random set of questions was like black magic. It
made us all attentive , thinking, and competitive. There were children who wanted to stay during lunchtime and challenge the computer. We did that a couple of times, but since finally the whole class wanted to stay, I had to stop that. We made many copies of that program. ( It seemed to ah.. disappear regularly!!)

I had a set of puzzling problems, finger math, and projects that are similar to the math now in the newspaper but there was no name given to these number puzzles. I particularly liked the games like Hot Dog Stand.. Lemonade Stand and we created a list of acceptable games with which to practice math skills, but thinking, thinking, problem solving. Some of them were from the first generation of games from the Lucas Foundation.

What most people don't get is that thinking is not necessarily a group thing. Learning math is individual. So we also used the Math Forum's ask Dr. Math.

I began to love math. I thank the child who scared me. What did he do? I taught number bases and he got it and made a database to show how it worked and asked me to check it! ME? I had NO idea if it was correct , so I took math above elementary level in a special program at Marymount .. it would be called a STEM program now.. but then, it was SET.

I say, I don't like skill and drill math so much. I am still laughing about the principal who called me in to ask me why the kids in my classroom scored at eleventh grade in math problem solving and only 9th grade in skill and drill. Since they were fourth and fifth graders
I didn't think an answer was necessary. I just smiled and said I had no idea.

Four of those kids are now at Berkeley two in math, and 2 in computational science. I only provided the pathway to new math kinds of learning. It was worth the trouble I got in with administrators. It was really worth it.

JaShaun's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always loved math. I understand how those of you that do not like math feel. Now that I am a Math teacher, I tell my students two things; 1) Use whatever method helps you to remember the process. I use money for many concepts. and 2) If someone shows you another way to find the answer and it works for every problem, you may use that way if it works for you. My way of doing math is not the only way.

Whenever I give my students a project, I try to relate Math to the real world. I also give the students a lot of creativity freedom so that the students will enjoy completing the project.

My hope is that my students will appreciate math. As I tell them at the they do not have to love math but they have to use math everyday of their life. It is great when I have students challenge that statement.

Andy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really think math us useless after about 5th grade, unless u are trying to major in some class to get a degree that is math or requires. People say all the time,"You need math to go somewhere in life!" But I ask to what exstent? I mean what fire fighter is going to need to need algerbra to bust into a house and save someone? he wouldn't be like,"Well the house is "a" and the wood inside is "b" and the fire is "c"." No way I think math over 5th grade is a waste of time and energy and all it does to students like me is bring my GPA down and makes it harder to get into a good collage, I am not even going to school for math I am going to for protective services. If I am a cop all I will need is basic math.(Add,Subtract mult, Divide) advanced math is such a waste and I hate geometry and algerbra it just makes my day harder and brings down my grade I have had to waste 300 dollers for tutors and I still don't get it. MATH IS A WASTE OF TIME.

td's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Andy, I felt the same way you do about math when i was your age. However, as soon as i graduated i found out how important it was in everything you do. Almost every job you apply for requires some sort of math skills....... believe me you are judged by the lack of math skills. The more math the better... do as much as you can. I felt so inadequate so many times because of my lacking math skills. Try to challenge yourself to learn for yourself later in life......I'M SURE YOU ARE VERY CAPABLE AND VERY SMART. PROVE TO YOURSELF AND THE WORLD THAT ANDY CAN DO COMPLICATED MATH TOO! It is something you will never regret. You may think you are only going for protective services but what you are learning is only going to effect you, not them. Try to understand, what you are learning will only change your destiny, not theirs. Make your life count every day in school and out. You can strive to improve yourself daily or just get by. Make it count man, you can't go back and fix this stuff. You must believe you are worth it and you are . You are a bright kid or you would not have posted your message. Now go prove how bright you really are. It doesn't matter your circumstances........ change them. It is your life and no one elses. GO MAKE IT GREAT! No part of an education is a waste of time. Try to have a great attitude about your life in general and you are a great kid.So go have a great life, education and all.... make it fun laugh every day at something even if it is yourself! Be happy and say I CAN DO ANYTHING I WANT TO, AND WANT TO. I DARE YOU! As far as the gpa and college, they want people who can rise to the occasion. People with can do attitudes. Life is a team sport.... everything you do affects others and people want to be around winners. Turn around your thinking. Go ask a bunch of firefighters if they think math is dumb and a wast of time or cops if you need a good education. Your not thinking this thru.YOU ARE A WINNER NOW GO WIN!

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