A Secret Ingredient for Improving Math Proficiency

Why we need to position math as a fun, approachable subject for kids—plus a promising new tool for doing it.

With all the hand wringing over how to improve math proficiency in the United States, we’ve lost sight of an important point: that kids learn math better if they enjoy it more.

Kids need strong math skills to live as capable adults, not just to fill high-tech jobs. They need to tackle the numbers behind countless daily decisions, and without fear. We’re not preparing those adults very well. More than a third of Americans say that they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem. Many restaurants now calculate the tip for customers because even some college graduates can’t manage fourth-grade-level fractions. The consequences get worse as amounts go up: One study found that adults who floundered on a simple phone math quiz had worse credit scores than those who aced it. Perhaps the 2008 mortgage crisis would have played out better if our citizenry felt comfortable grappling with numbers. Adults who fear math fear life.

A vicious cycle lurks beneath the surface here: Poor math performance stokes fear of math, and in turn, that fear of math worsens math performance. When math-anxious adults even anticipate having to tackle math problems, their fear actually blocks their working memory and degrades their ability to problem-solve. Moreover, the part of the brain that lights up with heightened activity is the same as for physical pain. It literally hurts to do math if you hate it.

We need to position math as a fun, approachable subject for kids to counteract these effects and fend off this pernicious anxiety. And yet we are completely failing to encourage and support this. Sixty percent of children—tens of millions—play organized sports; nearly as many participate in arts such as music and dance. Nearly four million boys and girls participate in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. No formal numbers exist for book clubs, but organizations from Scholastic to Disney offer online resources to help families start clubs for their kids. By comparison, only about 180,000 American youth participate annually in the (arguably) most popular STEM club, FIRST Robotics. Pure number play boasts even smaller numbers: Only about 70,000 high schoolers compete annually in the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC), and MATHCOUNTS attracts about 40,000 middle-schoolers—far fewer than their non-STEM analogues.  What’s more, these programs involve testing, and thus they attract kids who already love and excel at math. None is truly dedicated to making math enjoyable or confidence-building for kids at large.

When you narrow it down to our 35 million elementary-school children—whose minds are still relatively fearless and open to novelty—math has even weaker footing. Programs such as the younger Olympiad leagues and Math Kangaroo have radically fewer participants, and again, are intensely competitive and test-oriented. Other than the occasional parent-organized group in well-off towns, almost no kids have access to social math for pleasure. Widespread mathplay simply doesn’t exist, and when kids see this bleak landscape, they’re primed to think of math as a serious academic subject, period.

It’s a mistake to allow this status quo to continue. The good news is that we don’t lack fun math clubs because there’s no demand, and a new and promising tool is proving it. This March, my nonprofit Bedtime Math unveiled a kit for schools to launch recreational after-school math clubs called Crazy 8s. The clubs contextualize math learning in games—for example, Glow-in-the-Dark Geometry, Toilet Paper Olympics, and Spy Training. Instead of staring at triangles and squares on paper, kids learn how Platonic solids fit together by building giant lattices of glowsticks, then flicking off the lights to marvel at their electrified creations. The kits are designed so that any teacher or even a parent volunteer can comfortably lead club sessions. If a school can find an organizer, we provide a kit.

Within just the first month, we received orders for nearly 700 kits to serve more than 10,000 kids. That already outpaces offerings that have existed for years—Math Kangaroo has 14,000 participants spanning grades K-12, while Crazy 8s covers only P-5. It’s also getting picked up at a wide range of schools, including exclusive prep schools such as the Dalton School in New York City, a Title I school in Appalachia, and a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school. While the club is recreational and playful, not curricular, every activity supports a corresponding Common Core standard, thus reinforcing the day’s learnings without the abovementioned hand wringing.

Other fun tools for improving math proficiency are popping up too—YouCubed, for example, is a website that will provide a hands-on, exploratory approach to math. As the Common Core standards spawn a Wild West of new math materials online, hopefully some of that content will follow suit and bring playfulness into the equation.

In a recent SSIR post, Intel’s Barbara McAllister wrote, “If we want more STEM graduates, we must promote ideas, language, people, and programs that demonstrate relevance and foster a sense of belonging.” Math proficiency in the United States can improve, but we need to explore and experiment with all available tools and approaches. We believe that social, fun childhood math experiences can lay the foundation for kids to embrace math’s challenges—and ultimately become the capable adults our world needs.

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  • jerry barney's avatar

    BY jerry barney, NW Venture Philanthropy Foundation

    ON May 21, 2014 11:40 AM

    Apropos your premise is this article in Psychology Today:

    The punchline is: “No wonder so many of our students don’t like math and science: what is there to imagine and feel? Where is the art in their learning?”

    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • BY Frymaster

    ON May 21, 2014 06:21 PM

    First of all, YES! to Jerry’s STEM-to-STEAM. (The A is Arts.)

    That said, making math ‘fun’ is at best a dubious proposition for the populations with whom I work. What I mean is, I’m not sure most well-meaning education leaders can really approach what inner-city youth consider ‘fun.’ It all comes across as “those people trying to “help us”...again.

    Saying “Math is cool” doesn’t make math cool. (Lookin’ at you, Raytheon.) Math actually being cool is cool. And, for my youth, useful is cool.

    One thing we do is make skateboard decks, which, admittedly, is genuinely cool. I start each session with some sort of intellectual challenge or discussion. One day, when we were about to press decks, I put an unnecessarily complex, but basically simple, algebra equation on the board and asked them the question, “What is this equation?”

    Not “solve this”, which we did, but “what is this about?” Together we went through the numbers and variables, and they caught on that it was about the layers of wood veneer in a skateboard deck. Within 10 minutes, they discovered that the equation was about how many sides of veneer get glue put on them.

    Then we measured the lams and calculated the coverage area. It’s about 25 sq ft of glue for one skateboard. But then—and THIS is the point—I asked “why do we care?”

    By then, they were totally tuned in and understood that it was really about figuring out how _much_ glue each deck would need and, therefore, how much glue we would need to run a batch of ten.

    It’s really an amazing thing to see the lights go on in the eyes of an underprivileged, inner-city youth, sheltering in an after school program to avoid the chaos and dysfunction of their home lives. Especially about math.

    Skateboards are cool; glue is not cool. Needing to know how much uncool you need to do cool…that’s cool. It was the reason, not the framing, that made this important for these kids.


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