Stories in Math Class?

  •    This blog entry was written by Wil Reimer, Professional Development Instructor for FPU

Anyone who has ever sat through a lecture knows that it’s often easy to let one’s concentration drift. Soon we’re replaying last night’s football game or dreaming about tomorrow’s concert. Some of us have a hard time keeping our eyes open; we struggle just to keep from nodding off. But when the speaker begins to tell a story, we perk up—we listen with all ears—and it’s easier to focus.

Mathematicians are people too

That’s the first reason to use stories in mathematics teaching: they catch students’ attention. Who doesn’t want that? Even restless or seemingly uninterested students will find themselves listening because stories are naturally compelling. Everyday human experiences and remarkable adventures alike capture our imagination. And, after students have heard how 10-year old Gauss outsmarted his domineering teacher, they’re more open to trying the math problem he solved.

Stories from the history of math will help to convince students that studying mathematics is worthwhile. When they hear how Sophie Germain, against her parents’ wishes, snuck candles into her room so she could study math at night, they begin to suspect that this is a powerful subject. Since Archimedes was concentrating on a mat h problem when he was speared to death, math can, obviously, be spellbinding–maybe even dangerous!

Young people are reluctant to accept something simply because “that’s the way it is.” Stories about mathematics history and the persons who developed mathematics often answer the questions, “Why?” and “Where did this come from?” Even a two-minute anecdote can build understanding in powerful ways.

Mathematics is, after all, a human endeavor. While modern technology has simplified many processes, problem solving is still primarily done by people. And all kinds of people do math. One of the first mathematicians was a woman named Hypatia. And Benjamin Banneker was a free slave who helped survey the future city of Washington, D.C. Try sharing brief anecdotes about the people behind the math. Your students will be inspired and intrigued, even as they learn computational skills.

Collect practical, ready-to-use stories to complement your curriculum through my Professional Development courses: MAT 912, MAT 913, and EDU 919