Whether you are a math tutor or a math enthusiast parent, teaching math to the little ones can be a daunting task! If you are a parent reading this, you probably already know the importance of math in your child’s learning curve. If you are a private math tutor reading this, we assume you want to take your teaching skills to the next best impact levels.
Why is math so important?
Why is math either extremely intimidating or extremely satisfying and nothing in between? Math literacy is important because without knowing the language of the numbers, your child will only end up limiting their career options. And more importantly, mathematical knowledge is the core of many other subjects viz physics, chemistry, aeronautics, etc.
Math is, in fact, the language of the most scientific disciplines. Even the share market tradings run on mathematical algorithms. The advertising industry too utilizes statistics at every minuscule level of operations. Even the most art-oriented businesses have mathematical modeling as their backbone in today’s day and age.
While parents and teachers are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of math, the trend amongst the students is otherwise. Math skills of college-bound high school graduates in the United States have slid to their lowest point in 14 years, according to a national testing organization.
A significant portion of the blame falls on the pedagogical style. Particularly in the case of math, teaching makes a lot of difference. A single math class can push a student into either of the two thought processes:
- “Math isn’t for me! I will never crack these numbers and theorems. It’s all so vague and unreasonable.”
- “Math is so much fun! I can go on and on with these questions and try out so many techniques!”
To make sure your child or your student ends up thinking the latter, try these 5 principles of extraordinary math teaching:
1. Start your session/discussion with a question
Always start your session with a question instead of jumping into theorems or concepts straightaway. Put up a puzzle-like question before starting with any new concept. Let your child (or student) play with the question enough before getting into theory. Arousing enough curiosity is the key to how much your child or student will get involved in the lesson.
Here are some cues to efficiently using this technique while teaching math:
- Make sure that your question has a visual appeal – use flashcards, animated puzzles, etc.
- Keep the question as close to natural events around the student/child as possible (it will help them relate better)
- Throw the question more like a challenge than a predictable precursor to a lesson
- Choose the difficulty level of the question wisely. It must not be uncrackable and should also not be a cakewalk
- Choose a question that has a counter-intuitive answer. This will help your student/child be more interested and involved in the lesson
2. Let your child/student take enough time to struggle with a question
Rushing into the answer and trying to prove the greatness of the upcoming mathematical concept is a cardinal mistake! Let the curiosity reign for the rest of the session (say another 90 minutes at least).
Increased and unaddressed curiosity will keep the child motivated to look for the answer during the session. Higher involvement in the session will, in turn, lead to better retention and recall.
Even if the child insists on knowing the answer, hold it back until you’ve driven home the core concept. You can then always end the session with a discussion on the question and the solution.
3. Discuss principles, concepts, and techniques but do not solve problems for them!
It is important that while teaching math you don’t end up solving questions for the child. Remember that the only help you must provide as a parent (or as a private tutor) should be conceptual.
For example, do not solve for the length of hypotenuse while teaching Pythagoras theorem. Let the child plugin numbers and identify the correct way of working with them.
With every question that the child solves on their own, there is a phenomenal increase in their comfort with math. Capitalize on this satisfaction factor behind solving math problems and reward the child after every milestone achieved. Remember that the right motivation can do wonders, especially with teaching and learning math!
4. Accept the child’s alternative point of view, even if it means accepting 2+2 = 22!
While teaching math, always accept the child’s alternative point of view. Discarding their initial thought process as unfounded could turn them off from thinking out of the box ever again. In math, there is never only one correct way of approaching and solving a problem. Encourage your child to think as creatively as possible.
Try not to teach them to stick to formulas or standard modus operandi for a certain type of question. Let the child think wild and free. Accept their point of view and applaud the effort they put in. You can then politely explain what went missing in their view and why another approach is more logical. Keep your discussion productive, encouraging and open to every stream of thinking.
5. Make learning math a fun activity. Let the child play!
This is the most important hack of all! Making math sound like fun or playtime is the quintessential trait of a good math teacher. Rather than making numbers sound like a spiral of tedium, make them sound like fun puzzles. Easier said than done, this trick could require a little practice.
Here are a few tips to make math more fun than ever before for your child/student:
- Use online puzzles, live contests, quizzes, etc. to get the child interested in math
- Make use of a whiteboard while teaching math and illustrate the concepts as vividly as possible
- Let the student do guesswork and present counterintuitive answers proven by mathematical concepts (for e.g. 1.01 raised to the power 365 is 37.8 while 0.99 raised to the same power is 0.03 only!)
- Keep the textbooks at bay while discussing a concept. Try not to read out from the books, rather talk the child through. Keep your instruction style conversational rather than pedantic
- You can also invite some of your child’s friends (or a group of your students if you’re a private tutor) to a monthly math contest. Have interesting gifts for the winner and see your child have fun with math!
- Use color coding to illustrate nuances in geometry (use online resources or colored markers)
- Make test or practice papers look like puzzle sheets rather than long black and white lists
We hope this post will help you leverage your math teaching skills to help your child (or students) succeed in the subject. Remember, an efficient math teacher is one who can make math the love of their student’s life!
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This post draws some key insights from Dan Finkel’s popular TEDx talk on the same topic. Dan is the Founder and Director of Operations of Math for Love, a Seattle-based organization devoted to transforming how math is taught and learned. He is also one of the creators of Prime Climb, the beautiful, colorful, mathematical board game. Listen to Dan Finkel’s full TED talk on the principles of extraordinary math teaching.