Is Math Fun? Should it be?

I wrote a story for today's paper about wide ranging public relations campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the average American math student. Plenty of companies and foundations and teachers are trying to polish up math's image -- to make it seem more cool or fun.

Here's a link to an award-winning video called "Crank Dat Calculus" that a Virginia high school student designed to show how math can be fun. The Franklin County student won $3,000 from the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit that is also working to expand access to Advanced Placement classes and develop strong teacher preparation programs in math and science.

Experts disagree about whether singing raps about math concepts or rewriting text books with extra pictures or word problems about skateboarders is really the trick to engaging more students.

Math can be interesting all by itself if you don't get too fogged or behind. Many teachers I know try to lure students in with the concepts alone.

What do you think? Where do fun and games fit into math?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  May 16, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Previous: Encouraging Native American Girls in Science And Math | Next: Aspiring Elementary Teachers Fail New Math Test


I don't see how the video is worth a $3000 award. It has nothing to do with math. I doubt that it will convince any student that math is worthwhile.

The most important reason for learning math is that it is essential knowledge. Presenting math as something that is fun allows students to claim that it is, in fact, not fun and therefore not worth their effort. Yes, math is interesting and useful, and teachers need to be engaging, but students need to learn math whether or not it is cool.

It is not the image of math that needs to be upgraded, it is the attitude of some (not all) students that needs to be changed. Students who present weak justifications for not working hard at math, such as "It isn't fun," are not serious about education. It is a seriousness about education that needs to be instilled in students, not platitudes such as "Math is fun."

Posted by: srandby | May 16, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Yes math should be fun. No, making it all about entertaining students won't do a thing.
My theory is that kids learn to hate math at a young age. Why is that? Well, perhaps the parents don't like it and their attitude gets through to their children. And perhaps, my thought as to the biggest, is you have people who went into elementary education because they like kids. Many of them 'hate math.' Again, I think that sometimes teachers instill this into kids, and there you go. We do need to make it more 'fun' - math is a part of everything we do, and with good math and analytical skills, our kids can go far.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 16, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Atlmom1234 has near perfect accuracy. Math should be fun. Kids do develop their attitudes about about it early on. And most adults (parents and teachers) do broadcast fairly poor attitudes about math. The net result is a learning world with relatively low expectations for math achievement.
Ironically, the turnaround is conceptually simple. First, make sure kids succeed in dealing with their early math challenges. These mostly have to do with learning the basic tables. There are well-designed computer programs that ensure success at these tasks and make it fun.
Second, continue the model provided by early computer activities. Organize math curriculum into chunks variably sized to suit individual students and allow them to work at their own pace. Tracking the progress of a diverse group of students was once too difficult to manage manually, but, here again, computer technology makes it easy.
Sudoku provides an analogy. While sharpening their skills, solvers can work at the level of difficulty that balances challenge with success. As they become more expert they move to more difficult challenges. And it makes no sense to ask them to move before they're ready.
Math education can work exactly the same way.
We hear regularly about the practical reasons to learn math. How about the more philosophical reasons having to do with developing a taste for clear and rigorous thought?

Posted by: capjax | May 16, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Numerical ability DOES come naturally. Putting kids in more challenging math situations earlier, or encouraging them, won't change that. I worked my tail off in high school in my regular level math courses. I always got the highest grade in the class, with a lot of work. I have no math sense, but I can work hard and learn it for the tests. I don't retain it at all. I got a ZERO on my college entrance exams for math (at a top school), and they suggested I take a remedial course. I refused, and took the required one. I worked VERY hard and got an A. I cannot count change at the store. I use my fingers to add or subtract even simple sums. English and literature come naturally to me and I'm completing my PhD in that right now. But it pains me to hear that math can be for everyone. I am not a math person and never will be.

Posted by: bnsnyde | May 17, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Society generally recognizes a need for parents to read to their kids to promote literacy, and parents accept that, even if they themselves don't do much reading for fun.

But (at least from my perspective as a 28 y/o with no kids) there isn't a similar push for parents to do math with their kids. Maybe there should be.

Also, bnsnyde, it sounds to me like you would have benefitted from the remedial class. If you had easier material and hadn't been working so hard to cram for every test, you might have had some time to reflect on and see the patterns in the material, which would have helped with retention.

Posted by: tomsing | May 18, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I agree with tomsing. I have two kids and at the hospital right after I gave birth I was given a book called something like 'Read to Your Baby Bear.' I was not given a book about learning patterns or doing a baby puzzle. I don't think anyone here is pushing for a bunch of math and science majors. We just want graduates to be just as confident in math as they are in English. On the other hand, I have seen schoolmates who could have had some type of career in math but they lacked the solid foundation for it.

Posted by: jazzymom | May 18, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

thanks for asking. interesting thread so far.

nobody else is putting in a good word for
finding the right *problems* to work on
so i will. math is fun when you're trying
to solve some puzzle; otherwise not so much.
one needs teachers able to tell a good idea
from a not-so-good one; these are reportedly
kind of rare at the elementary level. also able
to lead classroom discussions; these are rare
at higher levels.

pure "drill" can be made fun by charismatic teachers
or for students easily motivated by *competitive* work.
otherwise not so much. i can't rate the computer stuff
but i'll bet there's some good stuff out there like somebody
already said. i do know people tend to stick with a problem
*much* longer at a computer interface than in a human
interaction (and it breaks my heart).

most *teachers* don't believe math is fun
and propagandizing 'em into lying about it
doesn't seem like a very promising line of attack.
never mind parents.

Posted by: vlorbik | May 18, 2009 5:36 PM | Report abuse

*watching* a video is more tv; the opposite of learning.
(i didn't watch this one so for all i know it's a masterpiece.
but you don't have to drink the whole sea to know it's salty.)

of course, actually *making* a video...
with some original thought involving math...
would be one heck of a great thing for a student
to take on... and i'll make a big public fuss over
any student of mine that tries... once somebody's
*made it their own* by thinking "what can *i* do with it?",
they're all the way in the door, leaders in the making.

i wrote a little song a few weeks back just to sing
to my calc class. okay... also to post here:

Posted by: vlorbik | May 18, 2009 5:46 PM | Report abuse

That bnsnyde is a PhD candidate who still struggles to count change suggests he or she may have been educationally short-changed along the way. The easy acceptance of this disparity of skills as normal supports atlmom's observation about adult attitudes toward math.
During bnsnyde's elementary and high school education the "math wars" have been raging. A major feature of them is a deemphasis of computation skills. Looks like the connection between liking math and getting A's in it has been another casualty.

Posted by: capjax | May 19, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

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