How to Build on Curiosity to Develop Young Students’ Interest in Math

How to Build on Curiosity to Develop Young Students’ Interest in Math

Zachary Champagne’s 3rd and 4th graders figure out early on that this math class will be different when their teacher tells them: “I don’t care about the answer,” according to an article in Education Week.

The goal is to shift his elementary students’ thinking from some numerical endgame toward the problem-solving process itself. In his more than two decades as a classroom teacher and math researcher, Champagne has found this strategy can be a balm for math anxiety, spur students’ creativity, and pique their curiosity about a subject many find boring and irrelevant.

Telling students the answer doesn’t matter—or throwing it out early on, then working backwards, another of Champagne’s go-to strategies—”can reframe the way we think about mathematics,” says Champagne, who teaches at The Discovery School, a private school in Jacksonville, Fla.

“If we’re thinking about math where the solving is the interesting, important part, it frees kids from the stigma of ‘I’m not good at this because I always get things wrong,’” says Champagne.

This problem-solving or open-ended approach, which emphasizes flexible thinking and real-world situations, is a powerful strategy for engaging the youngest learners in math. Kindergarten through 5th grade is an important time for building students’ skills, confidence, and interest in math—the critical building blocks for middle- and high-school-level math and science, experts say.

Most educators—92 percent—say students are more motivated to learn math and science if teachers employ a problem-solving approach, according to a survey of 1,183 district and school leaders and teachers, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in April. Despite the fact that this approach is highly popular among educators, many have not been trained in how to use it, the same survey found.

To be sure, a problem-based or open-ended approach to teaching math is often pitted against more traditional, procedural methods—think of the math worksheets full of equations without context. But many experts and educators see value in exposing students to both strategies.

“I think, really, these things can mutually support one another, says Julia Aguirre, a professor and the faculty director of teacher certification programs at the University of Washington Tacoma. “I think we can all agree that a math class that’s only about worksheets would not be a very fulfilling or interesting math class.”

The approach is most effective when teachers apply it to students’ existing interests.

That’s especially important for elementary school students, who start school with a natural curiosity that often dissipates by the time they get to high school, says Molly Daley, a regional math coordinator for Education Service District 112, which serves about 30 districts near Vancouver, Wash.

Thinking about “math is a universal human behavior, and people of all ages engage in math for their own purposes,” Daley says.

Students are using math when they play games and make crafts, she says, or even just look at the landscape.

“If we can honor the math that kids are doing beyond the classroom, then we’re more likely to create a mathematical connection and really allow every person to see how math is not just useful but enjoyable,” Daley says.

Professional development in the problem-solving approach remains uneven. About one in five educators said they “completely agree” that their districts have offered deep and sustained professional development into how to teach math and science from a problem-solving perspective, while just over 40 percent said they disagree—at least somewhat—that they’ve been offered that level of support.

“We can get too hyper focused on ‘this is my goal’” in a particular lesson, Daley says. That can look like: “We’re learning about fractions, but the student made a comment about multiplication. I gotta ignore that.’”

Teachers need to learn not to be afraid if students go off script, Daley says. A problem-solving approach is about “creating more space for students’ ideas and students’ thinking versus just letting your own dominate.”

Making that shift isn’t easy. But if teachers are successful, they positively shape their students’ relationship with math, potentially for years, Daley says.

Education Week

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