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Math doesn’t have to be daunting and draining—here’s how to foster student engagement during your math instruction

4 ways to bring creativity to math instruction


Math doesn’t have to be daunting and draining—here’s how to foster student engagement during your math instruction

Here’s a question for you: “What do you think is the most unpopular subject in school?” If you thought the safe answer was math, then you’d be right. According to numerous surveys, mathematics is easily one of the most disliked subjects in school, regularly scoring in the bottom three. I can certainly understand the sentiment. As a student, I didn’t like math much either.

Now, as an educator, I can see the inherent difficulties to teaching math to K-12 students. Kids often feel that math is both pointless and boring. It usually doesn’t play a big role in their daily life and lacks the flare of other disciplines. This can dampen their engagement and cause them to miss crucial knowledge that will ultimately help them in their learning journey.

This begs the question: How do we as teachers infuse curiosity and creativity into our math lessons?    

The art of math

Imagine for a moment if we taught art the same way we taught math. We hand students a color-by-number worksheet and tell them which colors to use and where to place them. They turn one in, and we give them another. You can practically feel the imagination drain away just by reading those words. With math, worksheets can serve as helpful practice, but it doesn’t accentuate the subject’s creative potential or engage student interest.

Student attitude towards the subjects that we’re teaching matters. A recent Stanford University study found that “if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacity.”

Creativity is important because it motivates students to learn. It spurs emotional development, promotes higher cognitive skills, and is quickly becoming one of the most essential job skills in our ever-changing world.

A few math instruction strategies

Here are a few useful strategies to help your students think differently about math:

  • Prioritize and promote play: Start by giving students room to mess about. Before jumping into the objective of the lesson, give students the opportunity to explore and examine the objects or data they’ll be using. That way, they’ll gain more context for when they use them to solve the problem at hand. When kids can think abstractly about something, they gain a better understanding around it.
  • Incorporate creative problem solving: Another way to practice creativity in math instruction is through open-ended questions. This helps break down linear thinking and creates more opportunities for questions and speculation. For example, try asking a question like, “Generate three different numbers that when rounded to the nearest tenth give you 37.7.” This allows students to consider multiple answers from different viewpoints while still staying true to the underlying principle.         
  • Cultivate collaboration: Some of the best ideas come out of collaborative group work.One strategy for fostering teamwork is Build a Mascot. The objective is for students to build a mascot that represents their understanding of what they are learning.State the criteria and constraints around the building and set them to work. Another possibility is to have students take their ideas and communicate them through art. Not only will this build up their skills in math, but it will also help their social-emotional growth.       
  • Foster weirdness: If we want students to think creatively, we need to let them think differently. For math, this means having students solve their problems using tools such as repeated addition or equal groups. Teachers should also try changing the conversation. After working through a problem, offer students extra credit if they can find another way for getting the same answer (ex. 2+2=4, but it’s also = 4/1 and 9 – 5).    

Moving forward

Math will always be a challenging subject for some, but that’s doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun as well. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new strategies or perspectives in your lessons. If you’d like to explore this subject in more detail, be sure to check out Van Andel Institute for Education’s free hyperdoc of resources. The more we work to refine ideas, the more opportunities we create for student curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking!

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