Have you done a good math problem lately?

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“Have you read a good book lately?” is a common conversation starter. Often the query is answered by an enthusiastic, “Yes!” and the sharing of one’s latest literary find.

I have yet to hear, “Have you done a good math problem lately?” Don’t people love mathematics as much as reading? Evidently not—but it’s more than a lack of affection. Upon finding out I’m a math teacher, many normal, successful adults feel the need to confess they were never good in math and/or hated the subject. In fact, this phobia is often worn as a badge of pride.

Noted mathematics educator Marilyn Burns states in her book, Math: Facing an American Phobia, that the majority of American adults, “fear and loathe mathematics. Math is right up there with snakes, public speaking, and heights.”

These same people, if they could not read, would never admit it to an English teacher, nor would they tolerate illiteracy in their children. Yet they are quite willing to share—even flaunt—their innumeracy (a term made popular by Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos.)

We all know children need to read. Moreover, we want children to read for fun, so we try to get them excited about it. We read good books with them. We copy poems they can recite. We fill their classrooms and bedrooms with books. We do everything we can to instill in children a love of reading as part of a larger goal: to help young people become lifelong learners.

Developing a love of mathematics fits this goal equally well. Just as in reading, children need to develop particular mathematical skills and, also as in reading, must go beyond the basics so they can use mathematics throughout their lives.

Because of the high-stakes tests that dominate education, math is emphasized in every grade. The view, however, is strictly utilitarian. It is a subject that students must learn, but certainly don’t have to enjoy. To increase test scores, many states have introduced higher math topics at lower grade levels. This pressure makes mathematics instruction more intense and less enjoyable for teachers and students alike.

Where there is no joy there is little chance for learning. But parents and teachers can find ways to create that joy. My practice as a classroom teacher was to start the math period every Monday with a short brainteaser students could work on whenever they had time through the rest of the week. Then for the first 10-15 minutes on Fridays, students would share their thoughts and solutions to the weekly brainteaser. My students loved them.

Occasionally on Fridays I would spend more time—sometimes an entire period—on an involved recreational mathematics problem. Groups of students would collaborate to find the solution(s) in as many different ways as possible. Again, these problems proved enjoyable for most students, and I used them as motivation for normal assignments by telling the class we wouldn’t do Friday Math unless we kept up in the textbook.

Teachers who use puzzles and more involved problems with their middle school students report dramatic change. First, students enjoy these activities immensely and thus feel better about mathematics as a subject. Second, students become much more persistent when doing mathematics since puzzles and brainteasers require persistence to solve.

But teachers can’t fight innumeracy alone. Parents must be as involved in teaching a love of mathematics as they are in teaching a love of reading. We must:

  • Teach basic skills. We can hardly expect children to get excited about mathematics if they can’t do simple arithmetic.
  • Provide good problems. These problems should be difficult enough that students don’t solve them immediately, but not so difficult as to cause too much frustration.
  • Have a positive attitude towards mathematics. This is crucial if we hope to foster a love of the subject in children.
  • Show young people that we continue to choose to do mathematics voluntarily—just for the fun of it. We need to share the problems we’re working on, and encourage them to bring us problems of their own.

If we do this, there is a fair chance at least some of our children will love math and, with luck, seek out good math problems. And perhaps there is a lesson for the rest of us. What puzzles and problems might we find that bring joy to math? Then, when asked, “Have you done a good math problem lately?” we could answer an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Dave Youngs directs the mathematics education program in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education.

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