Motivating Children in Maths

February 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

I meet children every day who have lost their enthusiasm for maths. Why is this? When we start to learn maths we are all keen! It is new, relevant and important. So what causes us to lose interest?

I believe the answer is simple: the children who are disaffected are almost universally the ones who are falling behind in class. Note class, not school. I meet plenty of bright children who are fed up with maths – despite being in the ‘top group’, they are still struggling with what is being taught and are perhaps towards the bottom end of the class. I love maths, but I too became unmotivated for a time at university when I fell towards the bottom of my class.

Why is this? Because the enjoyment of maths comes from simply being able to do it. We all know the feeling: when we get a question right, we experience a small buzz of satisfaction, of contentment. The buzz is magnified if we know there was an element of challenge, too. It’s quite a pleasant feeling, and explains why Sudoku has become the most popular puzzle of all time.

Not many buzzes...

Not many buzzes…

So let’s consider our class of 14 year-olds who are learning, say, equations. The teacher explains how to solve an equation and asks the class a few questions. The brighter, more vocal students respond correctly in front of their peers (big buzz!) The class start the exercise. The top half of the class may then solve 20-odd equations in the lesson (lots of little buzzes, a sense of achievement and understanding.) The bottom few may solve a handful, perhaps with the help of the teacher. No buzzes. Not much sense of achievement. And perhaps disappointment, if the teacher asks them to complete the exercise for homework.

Lots of buzzes!

Lots of buzzes!

Working in our tuition centre, we have learnt that the simple way to rekindle enthusiasm for maths is to allow children to experience the buzz again. This may mean we have to take them back a level for a while, but we typically aim for a child to be completing 100+ computations in a tuition session with a success rate of about 75%. Lots of buzzes! And lots of progress, too. DoodleMaths, used daily for 10-15 minutes, should result in a child completing 200+ computations per week with a success rate of 80-90% (higher, because there is no teacher to encourage or offer a quick explanation.) Again, lots of buzzes! But this only works because the child is working at precisely the right level for them.

I have come across some ludicrous examples of attempts to motivate students in maths through gimmickry. It probably made a good news story, but the teacher featured on BBC News a few years ago who would ask his students to text him the answer clearly had no idea about motivating children in maths. More recently, I came across a dreadful app (mentioning no names) which rewards each correct answer with a game of “Whack-a-Monkey”. The developers obviously started with the premise that maths is dull and best broken up with something silly. They failed to grasp that the buzz of the correct answer is reward enough in the short term. My children rejected the game immediately – they became fed up because their enjoyment of the maths was being delayed by a trivial game.

If you ask a child why they don’t like maths, they will typically say it’s because “it’s boring” or “it’s no fun”. But before you start asking them to text you the answer, try this: ask them “If you were better at maths, would you like it more?” The answer is always an emphatic “Yes”. The key to getting children more motivated at maths is to get them working at the right level for themselves and to experience the buzz of correct answers again. Kids only learn maths if they are answering questions, and lots of buzzes = lots of progress + plenty of motivation.

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