In Math Class, Rigor = Fun
By Peter Meyerhoff, PhD
It’s time to get serious about math in school. Math needs to be much more challenging, much more focused, much more rigorous. And that means it’s time we let kids play.
Wait… play? What happened to getting serious? Where’s the rigor?
Rigor = fun
To see why math needs to be playful, it’s important to understand the concept of “rigor.” Everyone talks about it, but as Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Rigor isn’t about demanding students do worksheets with harder and harder problems or insisting they get a certain score on a test. In math education, it has a specific meaning: teaching procedures, concepts and real-world applications with what Common Core calls “equal intensity.”
School does a decent enough job with procedural fluency and conceptual understanding, but it’s that third piece – inviting students to use math – where we’re completely lost. Most math classes, it turns out, are not rigorous at all!
The good news is, this is a fixable problem. And the even better news is, the more rigorous we make math instruction, the more fun—the more playful—math will be. That’s because when students have a chance to apply their math skills to something they care about, they actually enjoy the experience.
Think about reading. As kids start to decode letters and words, they realize that there’s a payoff: behind all the hard work of deciphering those lines and circles, there are incredible stories, wild adventures, fascinating descriptions. Reading is for something, which explains why most students are motivated to figure out how to do it. Reading becomes a delight, because it helps the student do something they want to do.
“When am I ever going to use this?”
So, what’s math for?
Answering that question takes us back to the idea of play. Have you ever watched a young child at play? It actually looks a lot like… work. They are focused in the way we want all learners to be: their attention is on what’s in front of them, they’re hard to distract, and they’re insistent about getting the information or materials they need to keep going. Of course they’re focused … they’re trying to do something – launch their rocket into outer space, build a big tower, or have tea with the king and queen.
That’s the place to start rebuilding rigor in math for older children: by connecting their skills to authentic, non-math goals. How can math be about something other than math itself? Adults use math all time – not for its own sake but to get something done, like calculate a discount on a hot product, plan next month’s budget or decide how many tomatoes to buy for the sauce. That’s what it means to “apply” math in the real world, but it’s rare for school to ask students to use math that way.
Whether you’re a teacher, math coach or administrator, think about different ways students can apply the math skills you want them to develop. Math students are always asking “When am I ever going to use this?” If your math program can’t (even occasionally) answer “right now,” it’s not rigorous … and it won’t be fun.
Pathways to rigor
One way to achieve rigor by applying math skills is by giving students games. Not the kind of games that try to build fluency through mindless repetition, but games in which playing and scoring require flexible applications of new math ideas. (The market doesn’t offer enough of these, so you may need to build your own.)
Another path to authentic, applied math is through making and building. Educators know that in early childhood, hands-on activities are a great way to learn. For example, we teach one-to-one correspondence by having learners set a table in a play area. But by the time students reach third grade, math is all in the head—an abstract, pencil-and-paper or keyboard-and-screen activity. Look for ways to let students use math as they use their hands and make things!
A third approach to real-world application is through inquiry-based investigation. The world is full of questions that kids are (or could be) curious about. Spirit Night is coming up, and the school can’t run out of ice cream. How many gallons should they buy? Last night, the local basketball team almost came back for a big win. How could the team have played differently to edge out their opponent? These are “math questions” or “story problems” that kids can actually care about.
The commonalities of play
These pillars of applied math—games, making, and curious inquiry—share some common qualities of play.
First, play is physical. It involves students using their hands and bodies in conjunction with their minds as they build things, position objects in space, move around, measure, count, sketch, model, and manipulate. Even when applied math is just talk, as in the Spirit Night ice cream example, it will be about concrete, tangible phenomena that students can picture.
Second, play is light. Whether it’s through a game or a building activity or discussion of an interesting question, students will experience the activity as fun and exciting. The teacher will model curiosity, a willingness to dive in and figure something out even if it’s challenging. Math will feel flexible and spontaneous, not rigid, stressful and intense.
Third, play is exploratory. Too often, math is presented as “one right way.” An environment of game-play, building, and curiosity encourages students to feel safe and not fear making mistakes. As students feel secure in their ownership over their work and work process, they can explore alternative and innovative solutions, testing the boundaries of their math knowledge.
The best news of all is that rigor—true rigor, not the fake version on worksheets and standardized tests—turns out to be playful. Applying math is fun! Kids love games, they love to make things and they love to answer interesting questions. When they can use math to do things they care about, math becomes the best part of the school day.
About the author
Dr. Peter Meyerhoff is the CEO of 10storymath, a Chicago-based firm that develops project-based math supplements for elementary schools. A learning scientist and curriculum designer, he teaches courses in learning and organizational change in the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.