Hooking non-math people on math


A strange thing has been happening in my workshops. People are getting really excited about solving problems. Now this isn’t really a surprise when I’m talking about workshops with math teachers. I would hope they would be excited to do some math.

No, I’m talking about the non-math teachers—those that teach something boring like social studies (I kid…kind of) or PE or even the guidance counselors that somehow wind up in my meetings.

It turns out that even those people that claim to hate math are tinkering away at puzzles, shooing people away until they find the answer, and then lighting up when they think they found a solution. Sometimes people who don’t have to be in my meetings are asking to sit in or for copies of the problem so they can work on them in the other room.

It’s very strange. Especially when the adults I see working hard on the problems tell me over and over how much they hate math or how they have never been good at it. But there they are trying to solve problems, writing equations, constructing arguments and critiquing the arguments of their peers.

It seems that when I present the task as a puzzle and not a math task, it draws them in. Yes, some get frustrated for a bit. But quickly it becomes a mission and they keep going back to it. They persevere. They use multiple strategies. They engage in mathematical reasoning despite the fact that they claim to hate math and are bad at it.

One of the things we wind up talking about after doing these activities is how we translate this to our classrooms. How do we create this same excitement with our kids in our classroom?

The push-back is there—that teachers can’t do “fun” problems all the time, they don’t have enough time or that their kids don’t even know their multiplication facts. But when we dig deeper, it turns out that math teachers aren’t necessarily good marketers.

We don’t always know how to hook kids. We don’t highlight the sexy parts of math. We don’t draw them in with an intriguing puzzle and then make them beg for the tools to solve the problem with. Dan has talked about this a lot, but I think it bears repeating. We need to be better at selling our subject.

In an attempt to do that, here are some of the tasks that have created the most energy in my sessions:

The puzzles from the transition to algebra program 

Fawn’s Noah’s Ark problem

Writing equations for geometric patterns: