Engaging students with mathematics: Back to school tips

In Australia teachers are preparing to return to a new school year, and many would already be planning those first ‘getting to know you activities’ for the first few days of class. I remember when students used to spend the first few days of the school year colouring in title pages in all of their new workbooks. Rather than using this precious time on activities that have no real educational purpose, consider ways that you can begin to understand the needs of your learners – particularly in mathematics and numeracy.

It’s critical to take the time to understand your learners’ needs and establish what I call a ‘positive pedagogical relationship’ with students, where your familiarity with individual and group learning needs will form the foundations for engagement with mathematics (FRAMEWORK FOR ENGAGEMENT WITH MATHEMATICS). So how do you move away from the title page scenario and engage students early in the school year? Instead of colouring in, ask students to reflect on how they see themselves as users of mathematics. The following four prompts might be useful:

Draw or write a response to each of the following questions:

  • What does mathematics mean to you?
  • What do people you know think about mathematics?
  • What is something in mathematics that you find easy?
  • What is something you find challenging?
  • What it something in mathematics you would like help with this year?
  • How do you learn mathematics best?

Gaining insight into students’ identities as mathematics learners is critical in helping you plan your mathematics lessons at the start of the year. For example, if you find that the majority of your class have a fear of mathematics or are anxious, find out why, and work out a way to address this. Sometimes this will require working with parents to ensure a positive attitude is demonstrated in the home (see my article in The Conversation). If you are lucky and have a group of enthusiastic and confident young mathematicians, you have the perfect opportunity to get straight into exciting problem solving and mathematical investigations – great ways to determine where students are situated within the mathematics curriculum and where they need to move to next.

Have some rich mathematical conversations from day one! A great mathematical ice-breaker and discussion promoting activity that I have used extensively is a little like a mathematical treasure hunt – Getting To Know You Mathematically. You can adjust the criteria according to the age and stage of the students in your class. It runs like this (using my example). Give each child an attribute block (this could be a domino, a playing card or anything else you can think of, but you will need to adapt the proforma). Instruct the students to find a different person to match each criteria on the page. Encourage the students to move around the room and talk to different people. When the task is complete, have a discussion about the mathematics underpinning each of the criteria, for example, if you use attribute blocks and the criteria is “find someone with the same shape but in a different size”, you could have a discussion about how we know the shape is the same, and what are the mathematical properties of that shape.

Finally, think about how you are going to plan and teach this year. Perhaps you have the opportunity to do something different. For example, if you previously used textbooks to teach, you might use more open-ended, problem-solving based tasks and more concrete materials or games. Think about planning collaboratively rather than working in isolation (if that’s what you would usually do). You might decide to place more emphasis on student reflection, allowing time during each lesson for students to contemplate and discuss what they have learned and what they need to learn. You might consider changing the way you teach mathematics and take on a ‘big idea’ approach.

Whatever you decide to do, changing your practice is a great way to continue your professional learning. Have a great start to the school year and don’t forget to let your students know that maths is fun, and it’s something that everyone can do!

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