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Friday, July 12, 2024

Fostering joy in mathematics

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As a math teacher, it seems to me that the “M” is consistently left out of STEM. We must know now that all the engineering classes and cardboard buildouts have not helped our country produce the number of computer scientists and engineers we need to thrive. I am betting that an increased emphasis on math will.  

In classrooms across the United States, the joy of math is often eclipsed by rote memorization and uninterested young people who aren’t compelled to learn about the disciplines their ancestors brought into the human sphere of knowledge — especially in underrepresented Black and Latino communities. To address this, educators must redefine math instruction by cultivating joy — a deliberate and passionate engagement with math that is visible in a student’s laughter, puzzlement, focus, creativity and willingness to share knowledge.  

Defining joy in math education 

Joy in math education is the manifestation of an intense, focused love for a particular task that transcends traditional learning but becomes a competitive obsession. For joy in mathematics to exist, a student needs to feel like they are on the cusp of understanding. The student needs to be able to imagine themselves closing the gap because the possibility of my triumph is ever present.  

Creating joy through cognitive challenge and connection 

From a cultural perspective, educators can engineer moments of joy by presenting math in contexts that resonate with students’ lives and interests, thus anchoring new learning in familiar territory. This could be a problem of the day involving the time rates in music or sports stats could be interesting, a graph that shows the market share of notable clothing companies and a riddle question about extrapolation could be a catalyst for joy.  

Additionally, introducing math through puzzles and problems that challenge students’ existing understanding prompts a deeper level of cognitive engagement. This is the approach taken by most high ability math programs like Beast Academy and Kangaroo Math that are likely used in affluent communities.  

It is also one of the approaches used in the upcoming K-5 math curriculum from Knowledge Reigns Education Group titled “Exponentia Prime: Puzzles, Problems, Power.” In this endeavor, we hope to create joy and problem solving by using puzzles as a first contact for math instruction in communities that have not been exposed to advanced math. We also aim to connect mathematics to cultural realities by celebrating diverse mathematicians and math experiences across the globe. 

The joyful math classroom: Strategies for engagement 

To bring joy into the math classroom, educators must employ strategies that challenge and expand the students’ conceptual frameworks. Using complex multiplication puzzles that look nothing like traditional worksheets can reignite a student’s interest in a concept they believed they had mastered. 

Another example is the use of the 24 Game, which is a target number game. In this game, students are given 4 numbers for which they need to make use of all of them once to build the number 24 — using any of the four basic operations. 

Another example is 3 Act Math made famous by Dan Meyer. These are visual based conundrums that get kids thinking by 1) presenting a challenge, 2) giving space to get information and seek possible solutions and 3) providing time for revelation and discussion. 3 Act Math can be the perfect tool to ignite thinking before teachers dive into the hardcore training that gets students to mastery. Find examples of 3 Act Math here and here

Students also love the Game of 100 in which they take turns using numbers 1–10 and take the sum of all numbers used until the total sum equals 100. The student or team who made the total sum equal 100 is crowned the winner. The secret to the game is not happenstance though, there is strategy.  

Puzzles, games and conundrums are great ways to ignite thinking before a deep work training session in mathematics. By embracing thinking processes, joy and errors as stepping stones to understanding, teachers foster a growth mindset that connects joy with learning rather than just the outcomes. Encouraging this mindset helps mitigate math anxiety, thereby unlocking the joy and potential within each student. 

Sustaining joy and excellence in math learning 

As students encounter joy in their math journey, they are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation, pursue further math-related studies and consider careers in STEM fields. My recommendation is to spend 5–10 min per class, if possible, on a joy challenge that is either aligned with the content or can break the monotony from one class to the next. Let’s get the joy right, then get to training. 

This intentional, joyful approach to math instruction has the power to transform classrooms, inspire students and nurture future generations who are not only proficient in math but also passionate about it. And to be clear, once joy is established, the supercharged training will ensue — that’s for the next article. Until then…. Dr. Jones is out. 

Dr. Patrick Jones, II is the founder of the Knowledge Reigns Education Group and Exponentia Prime which provides Math Circles and competitions for students.  

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