“I hate math!”

Over my tutoring and teaching career, I have heard this sentence so many times. “I am not good at math” comes up pretty often too. How can we make mathematics more engaging and interesting to avoid those sentiments bubbling up in our students?

As a comparison, it is not very common to hear students saying that they “hate English.” English is so much more than what we see at school. It is the language we speak, read, and write every day! What would it even mean to “not be good at English”? Does it mean you have issues with spelling? Grammar? Reading poetry? Analyzing Shakespeare’s plays? These are the types of nuanced questions we should be asking about math too!

It turns out mathematics is, after all, more similar to English than we think. It uses a set of symbols (spelling) and rules (grammar) to form logical arguments, which can be as satisfying as creating a piece of poetry! Math also invades our everyday life, be it for calculating the price after discounts of an outfit at the mall, predicting the chances of winning a game, or even modeling the evolution of a pandemic over time. When we teach math, we want students to see that, like English, math comes up everywhere and it is possible to become “fluent” in it.

The way to make mathematics more engaging for our students is to focus on those aspects that are familiar to us from our life experiences. Math homework still typically relies on repetition of the same type of exercise. Imagine having to spell similar words for your English homework over and over again! When planning classes and homework, I always consider how the current topics show up in real life. This works for all ages: we can discuss fractions in recipes for baking cake with an elementary school student, the exponential growth of money in a bank account with a middle schooler, or the probability of achieving various hands in a game of poker with a high schooler.

I personally fell in love with mathematics because of how it was presented to me: in a series of puzzles and challenges that my grandfather would bring for me to think about. There was no pressure, no test to study for, no forced repetition, just the pleasure of finding things out, as physicist Richard Feynman would put it. So let’s make math fun. Let’s make math exploratory. Let’s not ask our students to become calculators, but rather critical and logical thinkers who can craft well-thought arguments. Maybe then, we will all start seeing math as this universal language that we can all communicate in, and “I hate math” will gradually get replaced with “Math can actually be fun!”

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