Professor Shares Strategies for Getting Kids Keen on Math


What does it take to get students engaged in math? Philip Dituri, Ph.D., a former New York City public school secondary math teacher and instructional coach, has a few ideas. A three-time Math for America Master Teacher and a Big Apple award finalist during his 13 years of teaching, Dituri is a visiting assistant professor of mathematics education in the Graduate School of Education’s Division of Curriculum and Teaching. His advice is geared primarily toward the class, but can enlighten parents.

Experience First, Vocabulary Second

Mathematical jargon is a huge turnoff to students, especially in New York City where English is a second language for many of them. If I tell you what a “slope” is, and I make you memorize its definition, that’s not engaging. But say I give you a task, and in trying to solve the task you need to interact with the concept of “slope?” If you’re standing in front of the class and you’re stumbling trying to describe this concept, that’s when I give you the vocabulary behind the concept. It’s a real turnoff to come into a classroom and get a bunch of vocabulary that you don’t understand, and can’t even conceive the purpose of.

Put Students in the Center of Learning

Students already come to the classroom with a lot of mathematical knowledge and understanding of numbers. By putting them at the center of learning, and trying to elicit information and ideas from them, we get a lot more engagement. You can do this is by engaging in rich tasks that have applications in the real world, and having them generate questions about the situation.

If you’re working with younger kids, use something called a three-act task: You show an intriguing video that begs some questioning and ask students to generate a list of questions to investigate. It could be as simple as a video of a football player running with a football down the field. ‘How fast are they running?’ ‘How many yards did they cover?’ One of my favorite activities to do with little kids is to watch a video of Cookie Monster eating cookies from a box, and getting them to answer, ‘How many cookies did he eat?’ You want them to mathematize the world, instead of imposing mathematics onto their world.

Play Games

Most good games have a lot of mathematics inherent in them. If you’re talking to students about probability and expected value, you could look critically at the game Risk, and talk about different situations in the game and when it makes sense to attack or not. If you’re working on multi-step problems, and you’re trying to get them to think ahead, play a game like Nim or even chess, in which thinking steps ahead is a strategy to help you win. Appeal to their competitive nature. Give them a challenge. Let their desire to win be the motivation behind their mathematics.

Work in Groups

In math class, anxiety is very real. By allowing students to work in groups, we give them resources in each other. We give them models for people who already understand it, and we also give them a little bit of camaraderie because they’re inevitably going to work with people who don’t understand what’s going on. We know that people solve problems better in groups, and we know from research that they solve problems better on their own from having had a group-solving experience.

In the real world, people do math in teams. In the real world, programmers and scientists work in teams. The only time you really do mathematics by yourself is in these contrived educational settings.

Have a Problem of the Week

Problem solving is central to the study of mathematics, and it’s a big focus of Common Core. In order to keep kids engaged and challenged, try posting a non-routine problem somewhere in the classroom at the start of each week. If students are ever feeling unengaged or just want a challenge, they can get this problem and work on it. The problem of the week can help at the end of an activity when some students are finished and others are not. It gives students who are excited by mathematics an avenue in which to express that excitement. That creates a classroom culture in which students see others engaging in public extracurricular mathematics—which is a very powerful thing.


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