Illustration of math counting concepts
Faye Guanipa for Edutopia
New Teachers

Howie Hua and the Joy of Math

From deemphasizing the singular pursuit of ‘right answers’ to focusing on process and beauty, how a math influencer is changing hearts and minds.

January 26, 2024

Part of Howie Hua’s charm is that he’s very modest about his influence—and yet for thousands of students and K–12 math teachers, he’s clearly a refreshing, compelling voice. Though “people keep asking me to write a book,” he can’t imagine writing one at the moment. He occasionally speaks at conferences but mostly limits his outreach beyond the classroom to his slice of the math community: former students and anyone interested in exploring the creativity and beauty of math on his social media channels. 

His first venture onto TikTok was an effort to stay in touch with his students after they graduated and went to work as elementary school math teachers in their own classrooms. “I’m a very sentimental person, and I really hate things ending,” he says. “So half of it was for my past students to still learn math from me and keep in touch with them. The other half, I think, is because math needs a better marketing team.”

With these two goals in mind, Hua—who initially envisioned a career as a high school math teacher but instead became a math lecturer at California’s Fresno State University—regularly shares cheerful videos about fun math puzzles and memes with his 78,000 TikTok followers and 84,000 followers on X. Sometimes he posts explainers about more complex tasks, like adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators or dividing polynomials. Interspersed among this math content are joyous videos of Hua practicing gymnastic flips and twirls while tossing and catching a wooden rifle or sword.

I sat down with Hua to discuss his take on humanizing mathematics, what’s at the root of math anxiety—which research shows can creep in as early as pre-kindergarten—and how teachers can strike a balance between rigor and real-world math relevance.

Paige Tutt: On your website, there’s a line that reads like a mission statement: “My goal is to make more people love math and to make education in general more humanizing.” What is it about how math is often taught that may feel dehumanizing for kids?

Howie Hua: I don’t want students to wish that they were robots, just memorizing formulas, plugging in numbers, and focusing on the final answer. 

In college, I got a 48 percent on the first math test, and I remember crying on my dorm room floor. How am I going to recover? This is going to be the first math class I fail. I tried super-hard, and I passed the class with a C, the proudest C of my life. 

But I remember on graduation day for my bachelor’s wearing my cap and gown about to walk, I felt so bad because all I did in college was memorize formulas, theorems, and definitions. That’s what I thought being good at math was. I realized I had passed all those tests, and I had nothing to show for it. I’d forgotten everything.

That moment really helped shape my teaching style; it’s not just about memorizing, it’s about deeply understanding what’s happening.

Tutt: So when you’re teaching teachers, how do you humanize math instruction, so that when they eventually head into their own classrooms, they do the same with future students?

Hua: Math is so flexible, but when we teach math in terms of, ”Here’s this one way, just copy me,” we lose out on all of the cool, natural ways that people think. And when we repeatedly do that over and over again, year after year, of course people don’t think they’re a math person. Their natural ideas aren’t acknowledged and shown in the classroom. 

So that’s my philosophy: showing students that their ways are valid. Just because it’s not standard—like the standard algorithm for subtraction or multiplication—doesn’t mean that their way of solving a problem isn’t any less valid.

Tutt: You describe math as a creative subject, but many kids don’t see it that way. Can you share an example of how you help students see beauty and creativity in the subject?

Hua: One way I like to do that is through number talks. Number talks, as defined by Sherry Parrish, are five-to-15-minute classroom conversations around purposefully crafted problems that are solved mentally. So, you just throw a problem on the board, like 38 + 45, and then you have students hold the number of fingers up to show how many different ways they can think about it. The teacher would say, ”OK, what’s the answer?” And then, “How many different ways are you able to see it?”

We can make connections through that number talk as well, to show that, ”Hey, I really like this way. I never thought of it this way.” We can name their strategies, ”McKayla’s strategy, also known as the associative property...” So it really puts them and their creativity in the spotlight.

Tutt: On your social channels, you often post photos of objects—like a box of apples or a carton of eggs—and then ask people how they would count them. What makes this activity worthwhile?

Hua: When we only focus on the final answer, we lose out on the beauty of math, which often is found in the process rather than the answer. So when people say math is boring, maybe it’s because the focus is on the final answer rather than on listening to other people’s thinking.

I really like walking around to different places, taking pictures of maybe some dots, some holes, some squares, showing that picture to the class, and asking, ”Hey, how would you count these?”

I took a picture at Fresno State of 16 holes in the ground, and I asked, ”How many holes are there?” They all said 16. I said, ”Great. How did you count?” And we would come up with so many different ways that they would naturally count the 16 holes.

Math would be so boring if I said, “What’s the final answer?,” they all said 16, and I said, “Great. We all got the right answer. Let’s move on.” 

Tutt: That resonates with me. As a student, I used to hyperfocus on finding the right answer, and I struggled in math class because I was so scared of being wrong. What is it about math that leads so many kids to develop intense negative feelings about it, like I did?

Hua: Math class can be seen as a performance subject. Here is a problem and you need to get it right. And when we add speed to it, students think, ”Oh, shoot. Not only do I need to get it right, I need to get it right fast.” So that definitely can add to someone’s anxiety. And add the fear of being wrong in front of someone—or in front of 30 classmates.

Tutt: Tests made me particularly anxious. That’s when I felt the most pressure, as you said, to perform. 

Hua: During my master’s program when I was co-teaching future elementary school math teachers with my late co-teacher Diana Herrington, we had an idea. Students put their writing utensils on the ground. We’d hand out the tests, and students could talk to each other about the tests for five minutes. Then for the rest of the period they’re working by themselves. 

The point of this was to alleviate some test anxiety—and students have mentioned how much this lowers their test anxiety. They really love it, and some students use this strategy in their classrooms now.

Tutt: Speaking of alleviating pressure and anxiety, what are your thoughts on balancing real-world relevance and academic rigor? Some people argue that making math more relatable through things like real-world application oversimplifies the subject at the expense of more advanced learning. 

Hua: I don’t think that everything in math needs a real-world application—that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have real-world applications, but if it’s only real-world applications, that would just make life so boring. 

There’s beauty in math itself. If I asked you to solve 1 + 2 + 3 + 5 all the way to 100, there’s probably a contrived real-world application. But there are some really beautiful ways to solve that problem. That will not help me in life, but it’s a great exercise to do. 

I can live a good life without ever writing a poem. I don’t need to play a musical instrument to live a good life. I don’t need to know the structure of a cell to live a good life. But humans have the privilege to learn more than just the things they need to survive. 

I am all for teaching about where our taxes go, what type of accounts to open up for a bank or a credit union, all of those things. But if that’s the only thing we focus on, we lose out on so many cool things about math, and math is beautiful in its own right.

Tutt: How do you tackle developing a positive math mindset with your teachers-in-training? 

Hua: My first activity that I do in every course is ask the class to think of someone they know personally who is good at math. I ask: “What is one quality they possess that you think makes them good at math?” Students talk in groups, and we write five qualities on the board. 

Common responses are perseverance, determination, asking questions. But the most common response is patience. I love that they bring that up. They talk about patience in two different ways—patience in terms of being patient with others like when they’re teaching, but also they’re patient with themselves.

Then, I have them think about their hobbies and I ask: ”Is it kind of ridiculous to be asked to get it right on the first try?” Whatever it is, you're going to need patience with your learning. You don’t give up. You don’t say, ”Well, I fell trying this new skill, so I guess I’m not meant to do gymnastics.” It’s important to help students embrace that and embrace the learning journey.

Tutt: I think that a lot of kids view being good at math as a destination—once you get there, you’re just perpetually good at math. Or you don’t and you'll never be good at math.

Hua: I do tips of the day at the very beginning of my slide decks. Some of them are about math, but some are about mindset. One of my tips of the day is simply the word “yet.” 

If you don’t feel like you’re good at something, just add the word “yet” to it to show that where you are is not permanent.

I’m not good at math yet. I’m not good at cooking yet. It shows that these things are temporary and not a permanent feature. Even a specific math concept: I don’t understand long division, yet

This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.

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