On our journey to making sure that all students are mathematically equipped to solve the world’s most challenging problems, we have learned the importance of family support. This is why we designed family workshops as an essential component of our 2014 Math Fair: At the Square Root of Fun.We see the need to create and foster growth in the parent/student math relationship. Parents and guardians, for the most part, have a good understanding of the influence of reading and literacy around the house. The education community has put forth a substantial and concerted effort to communicate the importance of reading and literacy - parents know the value of trips to the library; they read with their kids regularly; and for most, they recognize and pass on the necessity to be a fluent reader. The same understanding, however, is not given to math. Many parents have historically struggled with the subject, or have a “math phobia,” that limits their ability to practice and engage with their children.
Our goal in providing these workshops, specifically the “Math is Everywhere” session was to emphasize that math really is everywhere, you don’t need to be an expert - you just need to engage with it. We wanted to provide an opportunity for families to see how many everyday activities can inspire mathematical conversations. Math can be fun outside of being just educational. Parents provide good literature and model literacy because it is enjoyable. Reading with your kids before bedtime becomes not only a ritual, but a special bonding time. Why can’t a similar experience be created with math? Good mathematics is about discovery, problem solving, and learning together - it isn’t about fear of making mistakes or memorizing facts. Our focus in this session was to create strategies, games and conversations around mathematical concepts that encourage math play as a family.
The “Math is Everywhere” Workshop took families through a series of age-appropriate activities that encouraged conversations, required strategy, and developed problem-solving skills - activities that COULD ALL BE DONE AT HOME. Below are some examples that we would encourage you to try out for yourself. Regardless of your previous opinion of mathematics, supporting a child's understanding and admiration of the subject will be key to their future success.
Mathematical Attributes & Categorizations: Take a look at standard kitchen cupboard or recycling items (boxes, cans, etc). By investigating their attributes students can begin to mathematize those objects. Put them in order from least to greatest, shortest to tallest, widest to thinnest. The activity can grow with the students understanding of geometric relationships - categorizing by volume, surface area, etc.
Estimation and Counting: Check out all the measurement tools that you have access to in the kitchen and look for ways to talk through quantity, capacity, and relationships. Take a bucket full of rice, a measuring cup, and a tupperware - how many scoops will it take to fill up the container?
Building Relationships: Morph the same activity above into looking at relationships by looking at volume of the containers. Everytime you go to put your leftovers away, you are doing math: which tupperware is the best choice? There are a variety of shapes with varying volumes. How do we estimate what is the best choice for last night’s meatloaf?
Generalizing Relationships: You can also start to Algebratize these containers and measuring cups - “two of these is equal to one of these or half of that.”
Number Perspectives: Bring large numbers into perspective by utilizing your understanding of key relationships. If we want to know how many grains of rice are in 1 cup, do we have to count the individual grains? Start with a small sample size and project out. If we can determine how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon and how many tablespoons are in a cup, do we need to count beyond the teaspoon?
Many of the attendees were really surprised at how much fun they had with their kids. The parents realized that in a very informal setting, even a restaurant, you can easily bring mathematics into a conversation with little effort. The families saw math in the context of a familiar setting, which instantly made it more accessible. Most importantly, they discovered the joy that comes from problem solving is both contagious and addicting.
I have done a lot of family math nights, and I am always really encouraged by the laughter and enjoyment that parents and caretakers get from watching their kids engage. Throughout this session, I did not see a single adult who was not being engaged as a learner. Watching from the back of the room, you could see that the moment they sat down and were faced with the familiar objects of the kitchen, these parents almost couldn’t help but jump right into the activity. It was great to see that the inherent curiosity that we see regularly in students also exists in adults! It was a good reminder just how important it is that we change society’s fear of the subject.
We know that math is fun, and we know that to be really be good at math, you have to be engaged in problem solving that kick starts your curiosity. Problem solving isn’t just about algorithms that you learn in class. It's about the application in real life. If we truly want kids to discover alternative energy sources, address food and water shortages, and solve the major problems that the world faces, then we must equip them with the intrinsic motivation needed to persist through challenging problems. These problems will require novel application of existing mathematics and the development of new mathematics - getting families engaged and seeing math as a way to solve everyday problems is how we ignite the love of math and construct the community support needed to lead students towards, rather than away from, a course of mathematical study.
About the Author
Erich Zeller is the Manager of Instructional Consulting at MIND Research Institute. Follow him on Twitter @ErichZeller1.