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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.

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Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jimmy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What makes math an important subject to be taught and learned is not always about the numbers. It is not always about being able to solve an equation or being able to identify a polygon. The fundamentals, concepts, and principals of math are only a small part of why learning math is so important. Math is an extremely useful tool for teaching someone the important skills in problem solving, deductive reasoning, etc. Understanding statistics and probabilities is also important in every day life. You may not realize this now, but as you get older you will. For example, you will need to determine (or understand) the probability of your pay check lasting til the next pay period based on your needs and wants. You may want to purchase new carpet for your home. Will you know how to figure the total square feet it will take, and then figure your cost for the project? You may say, "I will just go to Lowe's and let them figure it and install it." That is all fine and well, but how can you be certain when they bill you for 25 square feet of carpet, that you actually got 25 square feet? They could install only 20 square feet and bill you for the 25. Not everyone in the world can be trusted. Math turns us into thinkers. Working with students on a daily basis, I have noticed that there is now a generation of children who are not thinkers; they are doers. Now, being a doer is good, but sometimes it is best to think things through and use deductive reasoning before jumping into the fire (so to speak). Children today just want to get started and finished, and could care less about taking the time to read or listen to instructions. I often tell my students that one day they are going to run right out in front of a train. Without problem solving skills and deductive reasoning, things can go from bad to worst in an instant. Consider your analogy of the fireman running into a burning house. Do you really think that is what firemen do? No! They don't pull up to a fire and just run into a burning building. They brainstorm, consider the probability of the house collapsing, or other dangers. Math is important, and as far as algebra, you use it every day; you just don't think about it. For example, if you own a car and you only have $20 and the cost of gas is $2.00/gal then you know you will be able to purchase 10 gallons of gas. And, if you want to take a trip which is a distance of 250 miles and your vehicle gets 20 miles to the gallon, then you will know you can't make the trip; or at least you will know if you learn your algebra. If not, you may be stranded on the side of the highway. lol

Unfortunately, it seems that you are faced with the same situation as are many other students around the world: You have a teacher that either can't or won't show you all the many ways math is used in the "real world". Unfortunately, so many educators go straight to college from high school, then straight into to teaching right after college and they never experience working in the "real world". Therefore, they don't know how to relate math to the "real world". They don't understand what potential employers are looking for and expect their employees to know about math. So, listen to someone who has the experience. I spent 20 years working in the "real world" before becoming an educator. I understand why math is so important to know and understand and some day you will too. Please, don't let that understanding come too late.

Michael Heath's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is so true JaShaun. When I was going to school there was only the teacher's way to learn math. I am so proud that nowadays that instructors are allowing students to use a multiplicity of methods to solve math problems.

CLEVER's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Brittay Sikorski's picture

I was always very strong in math which guided my love for teaching it. I am only a beginning teacher, but try my best to instill my love for the subject into my students. My enthusiasm for the topic really seems to get my students motivated. Geometry was the main topic that I have been teaching. My first semester I had a student (and still have students) complain about why they are learning this and when they will ever use it in real life. At that point, in every topic, I tried to include real world examples and actual careers where the topic will be relevant and necessary. It really blew my students minds to see that math is in most fields. Another trick I used was teaching them little math tips that I have acquired over the years. For example, the concept of adding in place of subtracting, or multiplying by nines using your fingers. With my love of math and showing my students that math was everywhere and teaching them tricks, I seemed to make math relevant in my classroom.

Kristina Sheridan's picture
Kristina Sheridan
4th grade math teacher from Maryland

Math was not my favorite subject in school, as a matter of fact I was awful at math when I was in school. Now that its the only subject I teach, I love it! I think that comes from not liking it as a child, so Ic an relate to how my students feel when they say they do not understand something. I try to make my math classes as interactive and fun as possible. I find ways that I can incorporate hands on activities instead of just book work. I do a lot of foldables where the students can write our their understanding of the topic that we are discussing that day. I also use a lot of manipulatives which I find helpful if students want to understand better.

I think my dislike of mathematics comes from just doing book work as a child. Its not fun, and yes I am not saying I do not do it time to time to make sure they understand the topic, but i know that having them sit there day after day isn't the way to get them to understand math.
I love the new technology and manipulatives they have for teaching math these days. It keeps the students interested and engaged. I also find it important to make sure they understand why they are learning something. I have talk about careers that they may have one day that may need that skill or daily things they do that might require a skill. For example they need to be able to tell time so they get to school on time, counting money so they can make sure they get correct change when going to the store. I try to pass out my enthusiasm for the subject to my students by giving them hands on, engaging lessons.

I am almost certain I still have students that will say they hate math and do not understand why they have to learn it, and those are the students that really need the engaging lessons with manipulatives.

mooaz's picture

Math one of the subjects i loved.Well its not that math is for nerds.I want to be a scientist so i told my dad he said "Well to be a scientist and a astornaut you have to know math".When i heard that i i i just felt painfull.I know that u can only write a comment when your others or something.To tell you the truth i am only in 4th grade,And i know sqarute and learn them in 6th.When itook the prism test i failed,My best freind passed the test,i i i was crying that time.But before he left he told me every thing about math like addition,subtraction,division,multiplacation,fractions,squarute,arithmetic,quarute.I learned calculas alone when i was only in 3rd grade.lim=x2. thats part of a problem.Now,i am only 9 years old and math is cool.Never ever think you suck at math,Always belive you can do the problem,Just belive in your self.

Alayna Wagner's picture
Alayna Wagner
First grade teacher from Ada, MN

I think you made a lot of wonderful points. Sometimes we get so caught up in teaching the terms and facts that we forget to help our students make a connection to the real world. We need to get away from memorizing and form a deeper connection to math and relationships. Students will learn and understand more if they are taught in multiple ways, make connections to the material, and are allowed to figure out how to solve problems on their own. I'm starting a unit on money and I'm really going to try to remember the points you brought up in your blog. Thanks!

Betty's picture
Fourth-Fifth grade math teacher from Ohio

I have always enjoyed math and I have been fortunate enough to have had some wonderful teachers. My passion is to get students to have fun with math. I don't want them just thinking all it is is memorizing and then taking a test. The common phrase "what will we ever use this for" is one of my pet peeves. There is so much math that is used in every day life, I want to help them understand that and to appreciate it. We are just starting a new series, "My Math" published by McGraw-Hill and I am excited about the real-world connections that it has incorporated into it. Is there anyone that is familiar with this series and has comments and/or suggestions? Thank you

kirwin's picture

I agree that math really needs to be incorporated with the real world when we teach it. I try to give real life examples all of the time when I'm teaching and as soon as my students realize that it really can pertain to things outside of school they immediately pay closer attention and see a value in math.

shan's picture

I am a new graduate student who is studying E-learning in Northern State University, and was majoring in applied Mathematics in China. When I was a kid, I had a same feeling that the Math courses are very boring and hard, sometimes, I needed to finish so many practices because the requirements from my parent, however, with the continously improving my score in the class, I felt confident and wished to discover the Math empire. Maybe this is the reason that promoted to pursue the Math career in the University.

And when I am preparing the general GRE test, I am really appreciated the contribution from the early math curriculums like basic algebra, modern geometry. So, anyway, maybe some people may still remain nagative attitude toward learning Mathematics, however, if someone can be interested in this magic science, it will be helping her or him a lot.

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