George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Bringing Joy to Math Class

Math doesn’t have to be tedious—see how one middle school math teacher encourages students to get excited about it.
Credit: ©Mint Images/500px

It’s difficult to be a teacher today. Between covering all the state standards, preparing students for state testing, conducting data analyses of student learning and our own progress as teachers, and providing evidence for evaluations, we have a lot on our plates—and I didn’t even mention preparing lessons, let alone teaching them. It’s even more difficult to be a teacher of mathematics, that being a subject that students rarely find interesting and engaging. However, I’ve found some techniques to make math joyful and interesting to students, while still covering the standards and adhering to all the mandates of education today.

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1. Authentic Inquiry

The traditional belief is that students need to be shown procedures and to be able to reiterate the steps in order to show their knowledge through a correct answer. However, math instruction has shifted to support stronger strategies for student engagement. Enhancing student engagement is not easy, and it’s not as simple as making problems relevant or connecting them to the real world. To get students interested in math, we need to provide opportunities for students to authentically inquire.

We want kids—not the textbook or the teacher—to ask the questions. Problem posing is a useful skill and invites students to think mathematically about anything. For example, if I put a picture of a rectangular prism on the board with no text or dimensions shown, I can ask students to create questions that could be answered based on that figure.

My favorite part about this is that in the traditional model of teaching, we would have told students the figure was a rectangular prism. In the real world, mathematicians question, guess, and make their work more precise based on feedback from their questions and guesses. It is our job as teachers to provide students opportunities to be mathematicians, not just computers.

2. Math Music Videos

If you want to get your class or an after-school club excited about topics or ideas within mathematics, consider making your own music videos. Find a popular song and change the lyrics to cover topics like pi, trigonometry functions, or girls and math. Then record your students singing the song and have some fun. True, this doesn’t build much understanding of concepts, but students are excited to be involved in creating a video. Here’s a compilation of some fun math music videos made by my colleagues and our students:

3. Growth Mindset

Many students are unable to enjoy mathematics because they have a fixed mindset. It’s important for teachers to know the positive norms to encourage in their math class. If students are made aware that mistakes are part of the learning process and that speed does not determine intelligence, many of the barriers that prevent students from enjoying their math class can be lifted. The With Math I Can campaign also offers many supports and strategies. Many of the growth mindset ideas are shared in this math music video featuring middle school students.

4. Multiple Solution Paths

In traditional classrooms, teachers show a single method as the way to solve a problem and require students to solve it using that method and no other method. This approach does not help students understand mathematics. Instead, we need to teach children multiple ways based on their different interests and aptitudes, and encourage them to come up with their own creative ways to solve problems. More importantly, once students develop a procedure on their own, we need to allow them to discover counterexamples or figure out whether their conjecture always works. Giving students this opportunity helps motivate them and increases their creativity and problem-solving skills. This video demonstrates solving the same problem multiple ways:

5. Join a Math Movement

The Global Math Project is aiming to reach 1 million students with joyful and engaging mathematics. Check out the innovative and creative Exploding Dots, which can be learned in elementary school to better understand place value concepts and can also explain most computations through calculus. The Global Math Project is looking for ambassadors to help students appreciate and love mathematics.

It’s hard sometimes to remember why you became a math teacher. Chances are it stems from your love of teaching kids and your passion for mathematics. It’s also possible that you didn’t become a teacher to teach mathematics—maybe you’re an elementary school teacher and are required to teach it (among other subjects). This is the time to kindle or rekindle your love of mathematics, be it by following one of the suggestions above or through another method. If students observe your passion for math, it will rub off on them and help them find the love and beauty in mathematics.