Engaging Adolescent Students in Math

Guest post by Deborah Jennings, a grade 9 math teacher.

Student disengagement is a serious impediment to learning, particularly when it comes to math, which explains why many students cite it as their least favourite subject. They are unable to appreciate that by learning math, they gain tools, knowledge, skills and logical thinking which they can apply to understanding other subjects better and to interpret the world and solve problems in daily life.

In my view, the problem is that mathematics’ use of abstract concepts and numbers to communicate problems – whereas other subjects use words, which students are familiar and comfortable with – create a perception of personal irrelevance and extreme difficulty. It doesn’t help that parents, too, may have had negative experiences with math which prevents them from supporting their children or leads them to subconsciously express their aversion for the subject.

As Dr. Steven Katz argues (please see his discussion here), most of us do not remember what we learned in calculus class and why it is important, even if we had received a good grade. According to Katz, we, therefore, never learned calculus because there was no permanence change in knowledge and behaviour. As teachers, we should strive to facilitate math learning which our students find purposeful, so they are better able to retain the knowledge and skills that they acquire from our classes.

To boost student engagement in math, I feel teachers need to teach in a way that draws on students’ prior knowledge and is applicable to real-life situations. Also, teachers should not depend solely on paper-and-pencil tasks, but utilize manipulatives, educational apps, and multimedia. A cross-curricular, interactive and collaborative approach to problem solving should be taken, rather than the use of formulas and algorithms. After all, the math we confront in the real-world usually involves other disciplines and people. And teachers should ensure that students are understand why each lesson that is delivered to them is meaningful in their lives.

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