Have You Been a Victim of Math Torture?

Have You Been a Victim of Math Torture?
Math Torture
by Rod Judkins

Schools methods for teaching math fail even the cleverest children.

There is a way to put right the crimes and misdemeanors of math education, a way to help children learn and enjoy math. Math is a subject in crisis. In middle school, two-thirds of students fall behind grade level in math classes. By high school graduation, less than half will be prepared for college level.

The way to improve student’s appreciation of math is to teach it like an arts subject.

I teach art and design at Central St Martins College of Art in London. I recently did a casual survey of a class of my students (age range 19 to 25) in a drawing workshop. I asked them what their experience of math was like at school. They were bright, energetic, enthusiastic and remarkably talented students. They all told horror stories of school math classes. The words ‘torture’ and ‘boredom’ were the most frequently used. Most were made to feel stupid and inadequate. Interestingly, they blamed their poor grades on their own lack of intelligence or absence of talent.
One of them pointed out that they are taught math at St Martins. Every now and then as part of my series of drawing classes I teach perspective. Perspective is a geometric a system depicting volumes and a sense of distance on a flat surface. Students learn one point, two point and other types of perspective. I used to hate teaching the subject because when students try it for themselves they can get it wrong and I have to show them the right way. Being right or wrong is not the usual way I think about art.

Because we tutors fear that the geometric nature of perspective classes could be boring, we try to make them as engaging and entertaining as possible. Not so much for the students as for ourselves. We show them medieval paintings before artists used single point perspective, then works by renaissance works by Raphael and others, then progress to de Chirico who used the rules of traditional perspective but subverted them and then on to contemporary artists who use 3D computer modeling. We show plenty of images and discuss the intellectual affect of perspective.

The students complete drawings and then they make the physical 3D model of the space. They become deeply engaged with the geometric puzzle and they enjoy the struggle. They are totally engaged in math. They felt what anyone who loves math feels, the fulfillment of thinking and the enjoyment of wrestling with a problem. They learnt the rules of geometry without even realizing it.

Math classes are not taught with imagination or inventiveness. Math could be taught using music, literature or art to make it more real and engaging. Math should stimulate students intellectually and get students engaged with making and playing rather than passively listening to a teacher. In the classroom math should be taught as a creative endeavor. Math should be an activity. As with music, art or writing, it’s doing the real thing that’s inspiring.

Research by Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford University, shows that enquiry based learning that grounds math in real situations that students can relate to, is more effective. In her studies, different groups of students, which included a control group, were taught math in different ways. Her studies found that student’s who were actively engaged in mathematics learning, using problem solving and reasoning, achieved higher levels and enjoyed math more than those who passively practiced methods that a teacher had demonstrated. It’s no surprise that a war has been waged against her ideas and there have been vitriolic attacks by traditionalists.

The real problem is that schools don’t realize that math is a creative subject. The solution is to hand the teaching of math over to artists, actors or writers who would make it the engaging and entertaining subject it is.

Rod Judkins is an artist, writer and professional public speaker, delivering lectures and workshops that explain the creative process and help individuals and businesses to be more inspired in their lives and work. He is author of the international bestseller, Change Your Mind: 57 Ways to Unlock Your Creative Self.

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