Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Turning Grade 5-9 Students on to Mathematics

English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of m...
English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of mathematics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Jim Mennie

Mathematics influences virtually everything we do, but unfortunately, many students, parents, and teachers do not connect the mathematics studied in school with the applications and uses of mathematics in everyday life.

When we travel to school, pay for groceries, calculate time, follow a recipe, use a computer, play video games or participate in sports we are applying school level mathematics.

Similarly, in the workplace when we draft patterns, build models, operate machinery, calculate costs, analyze data, or plan a series of operations, we are applying mathematics and mathematical thinking.

The problem with teaching and learning mathematics both in the classroom and in a home learning situation is that mathematics is seen, and has been for many years, as difficult and of little value. Some causes for this are:

a) too many teachers and parents do not have a strong enough knowledge and understanding of mathematics and pedagogy to create the positive learning environment necessary for 21st Century students, and

b) far too many adults claim they were never any good at math at school thus implying that success in life does not require any mathematical ability.

The net result is that many students are switched off math at an early age.

We have to find ways to switch them back on to mathematics otherwise they may leave school lacking the necessary skills to function successfully in the modern world. Students today need a much higher level of mathematical ability than 20 or 30 years ago.

It is not sufficient that they know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, know how to calculate areas and volumes, describe geometrical shapes and objects, calculate mean, median and mode or calculate probabilities. Certainly they have to know these facts but it is imperative that they also understand and are able to apply this knowledge in different ways and in different situations.

Historically mathematics has been taught mainly through rote learning and this continues today. While there is some value for a modicum of rote learning, turning learners on to mathematics requires a variety of teaching strategies including the use of hands on explorations of mathematical ideas, greater use of non routine problems that challenge students and require them to be creative, and an increased understanding of why mathematics is important.

Common sense and research tell us that children like to play, to be engaged, to investigate, and to learn and computers are an excellent tool for motivating students.

Computer programs can present high quality mathematics questions combined with colourful graphics that are attractive and captivating for learners. Questions can be presented one at a time, thus avoiding the distraction or intimidation of a whole page of questions, and hints and solutions can be just a "click" away.

By interacting with a computer program students may not be cognizant of the strategies that are being employed to guide their development. They are only conscious of rising to the challenge of successfully solving the non-routine problems in an environment of make believe characters and entertaining graphical situations.

Finding quality maths teaching software or good problems can be challenging but worth the effort when one sees the positive learning effects on students.

The author, Jim Mennie BSc, MSc, is the founder and driving force behind Root 7 Educational Services. Jim has a lifetime of mathematics experience as a teacher and consultant. He has taught in schools and universities, written and edited textbooks and resources, presented workshops and in-service courses, and worked as a consultant provincially, nationally and internationally. He strongly believes all children can learn and enjoy mathematics.

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