The “E-word”, Engagement, has always been a much sought after idea in mathematics.
How do we as educators meaningfully engage our students in mathematics that is intrinsically sustaining–beyond just the time and space of the classroom–for a lifetime? It is the million-dollar question, right?
I know that if I would have tried to pen ideas for engagement even a few years ago, my answers would probably have anchored to a fading paradigm of learning mathematics–be good at it, improve test scores, and create wider career options. That narrative has been in the water of math education for a long time.
But, it is a myth that this consumer-oriented message is what the purpose of math education has always been. And, only until recently, has there been any pushback to begin to dispel the narrow domain of where we find the goals/objectives of math education. An article by Kate Raymond published last year described in detail this narrowing.
It now becomes a moral imperative to illustrate engagement ideas that return the purpose of learning mathematics back to a wider scope of informed citizenry.
So, with that said, here are five ways to engage and connect kids with mathematics in both broader and deeper ways.
Teachers in general have buckets of empathy. So, harnessing this in terms of math engagement will hopefully come naturally. Students learn better and with more organic interest if they feel that their teacher understands and relates to not just where they are in their mathematical thinking or any anxieties that they may harbour, but also just understands their overall well-being–challenging home situations, school issues, and general kid dilemmas.
The learning of mathematics is a long journey. Too many pilgrims do not make it to the final destination for a myriad of reasons. Showing and demonstrating empathy every step of the way is absolutely the most important quality in engaging children for the right reasons to learn mathematics–for a lifetime.
The idea of kindness in math education in terms of a formal idea for engagement is a relatively new thing. Earlier this year, Steve Khan(University of Alberta) and Allayne Armstrong(University of Regina) had a Call for Submissions to JCACS(Journal of the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies) regarding mathematics as a “Place of Loving Kindness And…” They wanted educators to submit articles that used kindness as a foundation for learning mathematics. To imagine something like what would “Kind Mathematics” could look like, while still in its embryonic stages, is something that can easily be given to all our students when trying to engage them with mathematics. Be more gentle with homework requirements and deadlines. Give students plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of topics, and generally create safe, positive, and welcoming environments to engage with mathematics.
Curiosity for mathematics is not a race, even if you use the metaphor of marathon, implying the duration of time students spend in school. No. Curiosity for mathematics should be for one’s lifetime. As such, it is critical that we give students ample opportunities to fuel that curiosity. And, that begins by giving students rich math problems that are in their wheelhouse of interest, maturity, and sensibilities. Questions must not only be low-floor/high-ceiling, but the questions themselves should be rivieting on their own. They should immediately invite curiosity. We are trying to install intrinsic engines of learning are going to last a lifetime. Mathematics is a treasure chest of curious delights. Let’s make sure we constantly share these with our students.
Students learn new ideas in mathematics everyday. And, while having safe and engaging classrooms go a long way in helping kids succeed in mathematics, children also need to know that learning mathematics is a lifetime endeavor, filled with stumbles, falls, confusion, etc. And, that it happens to everyone, including ourselves. That our own knowledge of mathematics only represents a very tiny and rather insignificant fraction of all the mathematical knowledge in the universe. That it’s better to talk about our mistakes and misunderstandings in a positive light, than rather shrink away from them and be embarrassed about them. If students ask us a question in math class that we do not know the answer to, we should not only be honest that we do not know, but we should be excited about sharing that information. Humility comes with a punctuation mark. Let’s ensure students see us as mutual learners who have just as much to learn as them.
My favorite subject in high school was history for the simple fact that it had lots of stories. Some were authentic. Some were fables. Some tall tales that stretched the imagination. But, they were all stories that had me glued as a student. Mathematics is filled with stories–and not just about mathematics. There are stories of students. There are stories of ourselves. They all interconnect and create a powerful synergy to amplify the learning of mathematics. In a book that I co-wrote with Dr. Chris Brownell, “Math Recess: Playful Learning in an Age of Disruption”, a central chapter to the book is “Storytelling”. What storytelling does in addition to making the learning of mathematics more human and alive, and as such, engaging, but it also turns the learning into longer, drawn out conversations. Conversations take time. So does mathematics. There are no shortcuts to learning mathematics, and there certainly are no shortcuts to being engaged with mathematics. Hopefully, by using these 5 principles for mathematical engagement, that you and your students will find more joy, wonder, and adventure in exploring the world of mathematics!