Math can be fun!

math joke

If you don’t get the joke, show it to your favorite high school student

Making math fun isn’t really about cartoons, but if you get the joke, I’m pretty sure it will put a smile on your face. (If you don’t, go ask your favorite high school student.) For me, making math fun is about finding creative ways to help a student understand the material and its relevance. It’s about getting the student involved in a discussion rather than expecting him or her to be a passive receiver of information. I recently read a great article in the New York Times that speaks directly to the importance of interactive learning (and, unfortunately, to the absence of it in most math classes in the U.S.).

Yes, math can be fun, and here’s how I approach making it so. First, I make a point of asking a student how they would approach a problem, rather than just directing him. It makes him think, and even if he comes up with an approach that won’t solve the problem, I give positive feedback for putting thought into it.

Second, I make great use of a small whiteboard that I carry with me everywhere I go. On it I draw pictures, diagrams, and examples, and I keep trying different pictures, diagrams, and examples until I see that “Oh, I got it!” look in the student’s eyes.

Finally, I try my best to come up with examples that are interesting to each particular student. If a young student isn’t getting the “pie” approach for explaining fractions, I switch to the brownie (thanks to Rebecca Zook!). If a student has trouble remembering volume conversions, I present the “gallon butterfly.” If an older student sees a technical degree in her future, I provide examples of the usefulness of a particular topic, e.g., complex numbers, in physics and engineering.

I’ll grant that not all math problems can elicit a smile from a student, and that’s where a positive attitude comes in. It is important for me to be cheerful and to look like I’m having fun (I am!), and to inject a little humor into the conversation from time to time. Sure, my students might rather be out playing basketball or tennis than studying math, but when math is the order of the day, we might just as well try to make it fun.

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