Why Can’t Math Be Fun? Tips to Shift Mindsets and Push Motivation

math-chat“Math is plenty rigorous, but it’s not really fun!,” teachers so often tell me.  Followed by…you guessed it, “What can I do to make math more fun?” The answer seemed simple enough: do more fun things.  

But there’s more to it. As I reflect on the successful math teachers I’ve coached and observed, a trend emerges:When students are perceived to genuinely enjoy math, it has more to do with the classroom environment and culture of learning that the teacher has established than with the actual math.  

This more nuanced view on “fun” raises several questions. What role does the learning environment have on students’ attitudes towards math?  How much does the lack of motivation or knowledge or even the teachers’ approach to instruction contribute to classrooms where students’ engagement is perceived as lacking in effort, participation and persistence?

To some extent, all of these things are important. So let’s chat about all of them!

Creative Campaigns copyMindset Matters

Promoting a positive math mindset is easier said than done. You may have said “I’m not really a math person!” or “I don’t really like math!” Maybe you find math to be confusing and boring.  Your students are likely to pick up on those feelings in your instruction and interactions during math. Students whose parents have expressed negative feelings toward math or have had negative experiences themselves are likely to view math as their least favorite subject.  

But even the most math-phobic can take positive, proactive steps to re-orient themselves and others towards engaging mathematical content.

Begin by determining how your ideal math classroom looks, sounds and feels.  Communicate to your students these expectations for learning. Invite them to share how they think they learn best and ask them to hold you accountable for meeting their expectations as well.  Start every lesson by greeting students as mathematicians. Remind them of the importance of hard work and perseverance.

Creative Campaigns copyMotivation and Moving Past Misconceptions

Students are less likely to try and persist through difficult concepts if they don’t feel like they will be successful.  When students have gaps in knowledge and/or ability, they may get frustrated and give up when math doesn’t make sense. How can we positively influence student’s perception of themselves and help them overcome obstacles? To start, capitalize on success and learn from error.

Help your mathematicians see that mistakes are opportunities to learn.  As Lemov mentions in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, “push students to think of ‘wrong’ as a first, positive and often critical step toward getting it ‘right’.”

Change the way you approach reteaching and remediation to build on students’ most recent successes rather than their failures.  For example, if students struggle with more abstract representations, think algorithms, revisit concrete and pictorial models. Additionally, be mindful to not allow productive struggle to cross over into frustration. Incorporate scaffolding and intentional opportunities to check for understanding and respond with adaptations to your lesson in a timely manner.

Creative Campaigns copyMeaningful Math Experiences

Now for the fun!

While we expect a lot from curricular resources–alignment to CCSS and the shifts, suggestions for differentiation, not too easy but not too hard–the reality is that no curriculum is one-size-fits-all! It’s up to teachers to critically examine the components to determine if and how the instructional strategies presented in the lessons will fit the needs of their learners.  

Bottom line: The way you teach should engage students in the learning.  Let Students DO Math. Allow math to be an active and social experience whenever possible.  

Use the manipulatives that are suggested in the lesson.  In the case that you don’t have the exact materials, consider the goal of the lesson (i.e the standard and objective) and how the materials help students actualize that goal then make a reasonable substitution.  For example, the lessons suggested place value disks, instead use color counters or bingo chips with a labeled place value chart. Make lessons active by making the most of the moments in the lesson where students can move.  It can be as small as incorporating motions with a fluency activity or more orchestrated and calling for a ‘standing meeting’ to share work during the debrief. Here’s an example of how Herzl School of Excellence math teacher Cha’yra Eddie builds exercise into her fluency drills.

Provide opportunities for cooperative learning.  Invite students to work through tasks together. Encourage learning through discussions that support mathematical practices like reasoning, constructing arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others. In this example, Fuller School of Excellence math teacher Casey Anderson embeds a Think-Pair-Share in her fluency drill to invite students to share their thinking strategies.

Make math relevant and relatable.  Math IS a part of our everyday life.  The more we help students see this, the more they will understand the purpose for learning it.  Hook your students by superficially changing the names and contexts of problems to things that are more familiar to them. Relate to struggling students by sharing your own efforts in learning challenging subjects. Help your students see themselves at mathematicians by creating a classroom showcase that features prominent and diverse mathematical thinkers.

Mindset and motivation will continue to shift positively as students begin to see their effort and hard work pay off and as you continue to find creative ways to engage students with your instruction.  

Do you have more specific ways to incorporate fun into your math lessons? Don’t keep it secret–share it in the comments below!


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