Hungry for Math
Giving Math a positive voice
A group of Finnish educators want us all to be hungry for Mathematics. They know you will be sceptical, but that’s part of the problem, according to Jenni Katz-Miller.
There’s something going wrong
It is a common experience for many of us, either personally or through our children: a child starts school with huge enthusiasm and eagerness to learn mathematics. But something happens along the way. Typically, negative feelings towards mathematics pile up and by the end of 9th grade most students say they don’t like mathematics at all.
Girls and women in particular suffer in this way, have lower self-belief and greater anxiety so far as mathematics are concerned. What can start as an individual inconvenience can have significant consequences for them as an adult, contributing to a negative effect on society. Women avoid STEM-related careers, which in turn causes a shortage of mathematically skilled graduates in the labor market globally.
The pattern touches even high-performing female students, as seen in a study of a group of Finnish high achievers.
Activities that engage
Through research we know that interest and motivation of young people can be better caught by using mathematical activities that lower the threshold for participation. These kinds of activities catch and hold student interest both in the moment and for the long run. Open-ended mathematics tasks that have no right or wrong answers, can also be tied to the lives of the students themselves. What is specifically important with these tasks is that they offer all kinds of opportunities for students to participate in something more than just copying and repeating mathematics. They will be making it.
The wider problem
Although a huge change can be made through altering our approach in school, it will not be enough. What young people also need to hear is a positive voice about Math outside of school, since the problem actually lurks in larger socio-cultural structures. Unfortunately, for some reason you just don’t hear people talking about Math in a positive way in mainstream media which seems to avoid everything that is mathematics related. If you hear people talking about Math at all, the subject has be put in a box, clearly labelled ‘Too Hard’. All in all, people are just not willing to talk about things mathematical in any kind of positive way.
Math has just got to be enjoyable, relevant, accessible – and talked about! This is now needed more than ever, as some people are realizing amid the coronavirus outbreak, climate crisis and other global challenges. To address these issues properly, we need people that have trust in their own mathematical thinking, who can understand cause and effect and focus on what needs to be done to speak out.
Enjoyable math does not mean making math easy – solving global crises is far from easy! Furthermore, challenges that are too simple might even be boring. Would you be motivated to fill in all the math tasks from the schoolbook of a first grader? However, you do have to get people interested in the first place.
Accessible, high ceiling activities
By using multilayered mathematics assignments that have a low accessibility threshold for all to access, and a high ceiling to stretch thinking, you can engage your students in a new way. Multilayered tasks challenge the idea of what is mathematical to begin with. As these tasks offer everyone an inclusive opportunity to participate, they offer an excellent chance to support engagement, motivation and collaboration in classrooms.
We would like to challenge you to explore your own hunger for math as well, so go ahead and dare to stir your passion for math with the following task (don’t forget to allow your students to taste it too!).
This task is a perfect example of what we would like more of. It is open-ended, which shifts the focus from whether the final answer is correct or not into the problem-solving process itself. We have seen this task evoke interest and collaboration with young children, with high schoolers and with mathematics education researchers – and because the task is multilayered, it offers interesting ideas for all of them!
The mathematical concept behind the task is quite sophisticated, and the content itself could be introduced as a part of high school mathematics. Try to draw a graph, for example, and explain what kind of a function would represent daddy’s jog! However, the task does not require mathematical vocabulary, and even young learners would soon find a way to contribute. You could try to run as fast as you can and see how long it is possible to maintain that speed! Or maybe you might want to model daddy’s jog with computer software?
In our view, there are three principles to get students switching back on to mathematics:
- Make mathematics emotionally appealing to prevent problems of boredom
- Use multilayered tasks to diminish problems to engage people and which can be accessed at range of different levels.
- Make it a shared construction to increase collaboration, autonomy, joy and purposefulness
Do this once a week, or at least once in a month and you’ll soon be part of the positive voice which we think is so important – and which will add to everyone’s hunger for Mathematics.
Math Hunger is an award-winning group of Mathematics educators and researchers from Finland. Because they wanted to get everyone hungry for Math, they formed their own company to spread the word.
Jenni Katz-Miller is the CEO. If you would like to find out more about their training, materials and workshops please e-mail her on firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more on www.mathhunger.com and their social media pages.
Facebook: Math Hunger https://www.facebook.com/Math-Hunger-101068414793543/
Images kindly provided by Math Hunger
BBC News: 22 April 2016 – Girls ‘more afraid’ of maths than boys, says new study