How Do You Spark a Love of Math in Kids?

| May 25, 2012 | 54 Comments
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What is it about middle school and mathematics?

Decades of educational research demonstrate that during the years between elementary school and high school, many students disengage from math and don’t regain their interest—to the detriment of their later schooling, and even their adult careers. A study that followed 273 students over the course of their first year of middle school, for example, found that by spring, the pupils described mathematics as less valuable than they had the previous fall, and reported that they were investing less effort and persistence in the subject than they had before.

Andrew Martin, a researcher from the University of Sydney in Australia, set out to investigate what made middle-school students switch on — or switch off — to math. The findings of Martin and his colleagues, which were published earlier this year in the Journal of Educational Psychology, were based on data from 1,601 Australian middle school students, from 200 classrooms in 33 schools.

Offer a challenge that’s well-matched to the child’s skill level, with clear goals and unambiguous feedback.

One of the factors they identified in turning middle-schoolers onto math is self-efficacy: students’ sense that they are competent and able enough to solve mathematical problems. To foster and encourage this in kids, Martin recommends that teachers and parents “restructure learning so as to maximize opportunities for success” by building on skills that students have already mastered, for example, and helping kids set challenging but realistic goals.

A second element critical to switching students onto math is the value they attach to the subject. Parents and teachers can foster the sense that math is an important and relevant body of knowledge by demonstrating the usefulness of math in the real world, and by making themselves positive role models for valuing math. In fact, parents’ own interest in math is another important component Martin and his coauthors identified.

Another simple but powerful trigger: Students’ own love math was a strong predictor of their engagement with the subject. Parents and teachers can foster the enjoyment by creating what psychologists call good conditions for “flow”: a challenge that’s well-matched to the child’s skill level, with clear goals and unambiguous feedback.

How do kids get turned off to math? Very simply, the absence of all of the above. Students who feel little self-efficacy in math, who fail to see the usefulness of the subject, whose parents evince a lack of interest and who don’t enjoy doing math are the ones who will turn off and shut down.

Martin adds that there is one other element that leads middle-schoolers to disengage from math: math anxiety. He recommends that involved adults help these anxious children to learn relaxation techniques, to deal more effectively with fear of failure, and to prepare for high-pressure situations like math tests. By targeting students for such interventions while they’re still in middle school, parents and teachers can turn on a light that won’t soon be switched off.


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  • ope_b

    Appreciate the point about parents’ own feelings about math. Math anxiety among the adult population is something that doesn’t get talked about enough, and nor does its connection to how kids view math and perform.  It’s not uncommon to hear well-meaning parents try to alleviate kids’ fear of math through empathy (“I’m terrible at math too but keep working at it…”). I’m also very surprised when I see adults shy away from doing simple math (e.g., basic money calculations). It’s hard to imagine raising students confident in math if large swaths of the adult population fear it. Maybe part of the solution is finding a way to reduce math anxiety among adults who are interacting regularly with middle schoolers…

  • Jose

    This was worth the read. I’d be interested in knowing more about the “real world” piece described in the middle paragraphs.  Math, unfortunately, isn’t ALL about “real world,” but often about abstraction and developing problem-solving skills. In any case, great piece. Sent to my staff.

    • Christine Sitter

      So true, Jose.  I so often explain to frustrated students that yes, they may never use that “long, crazy, pointless (insert adolescent adjective here)” math in their career, but they WILL use their problem solving skills.  And they will need to figure out what to do when they have a big mess going on in any area of their lives.  They are “in the moment” type of learners, though.  It works for some!

      • Radiofreeschool

        You can learn problem solving by doing games and puzzles- at extraordinary high levels too. I think we should give math a rest. Too much focus on the topic has done very little to alleviate mathphobia.In stead, focus on creating, building, where you’ll be applying the math. Examine world issues such as poverty and famine and look at statistics. Learn the history of math- where did the concept of zero come from? What obsessed the famous mathematicians of the past; of today?

  • Patti MacNeil

    My grandfather had to quit school at 14. Many years later, when my mother was 14, he could no longer help her with math, it frustrated and embarrassed him which in term made it more difficult for her. The year was 1935 and when she asked for more help from her teacher the woman said: “You won’t need math to be a good wife.” That was the end of my mother’s pursuit of the subject which confounded her and made her father frustrated and angry. When I faced challenges in high school she told me I was going to use language in my career and not math so not to worry. 

    That math-deficient math-phobic family tree has sprouted a new branch from which hangs healthy fresh fruit. My kids, aged 7 and 9, are completely comfortable with math and are learning it from a man who teaches them the beauty of it and the importance role it will play in opening doors for them in the future. Had I been taught math like they are being taught I would likely have still followed a career in communication but it would have been by choice, not default. 

    The math they are learning is a enrichment program here in Calgary called Bright Minds. The founders, Aaron and Moses Renert, are passionate about the subject and about kids. My kids go once a week for an hour and they love it. Small classes, games, puzzles, brain teasers and when they tell me: “I love math, I’m good at math.”, I have got my money’s worth and more.One of the mistakes we parents make is to admit our loathing of or incapability to understand math. The other thing I found fascinating was that my son, as he headed into grade one, said: I” am scared of math because I don’t know what it is.” Turns out counting toes and dividing three cookies evenly between he and his sister didn’t register as being MATH, he thought it was “numbers” or “counting” or “sharing”. 

    Thanks for the post Annie, interesting as always.

  • Tutul Kairi

    As far I feel we need to make the Subject interesting for the Children for this we need to make them visualize the presence of Maths in the Nature , in our day to day life etc. 

  • Dianafoot

    After more than thirty years of teaching math to 3rd-5th graders, I have found multiple pathways to help children learn how to solve problems. I find it to be a national shame that we are being more and more limited in our resources and methods, dictated by the powers-that-be how we can teach math in this narrow way or that, according to which textbook company has sold the latest hype. Folks who limit veteran teachers to using inferior Name-brand, highly marketed materials need to be looked at…

  • Peter Price

    Really helpful article, Annie.

    Thanks for sharing insights from actual research into what helps and what hinders middle schoolers in math. Your post underlines the importance of the significant adults in children’s lives sending the right messages about learning math.

    I will be teaching a course to future middle school teachers next semester. This article has helped me to prepare.

  • Tristan

    Paul Lockhart said it better in his Lament –

    This article and research is a non-starter. It doesn’t address the core problem. Mathematics is a beautiful way of thinking about the abstract, yet it’s taught as a procedural tool and nothing more.

    Teach it like music. Instill a love of mathematics as the art that it is. Reconstruct how we present mathematics to children and they will love it. Simple as that.

    These micro-problems are just hairline cracks in the broken pieces of a shattered cup. Why patch the cracks if the cup will never hold water? We need to forge a new one.

    • Sarah

       Right on Tristan.  I learned math in the Montessori system.  I learned to construct beautiful puzzles and bead pictures that depicted simple mathematical relationships such as the multiplication table and the binomial equation.  We learned the Pythagorean Theorem by playing with triangles and squares.  I am a math teacher in middle school in the process of curriculum mapping and I am constantly advocating for a more creative and circular approach to teaching. The problem is that most people learned in strictly logical, sequential fashion, so that is how they teach.  Education reform does take some courage.  I don’t want negative evaluations for not following the map.  If my kids don’t perform on standardized tests then I won’t be allowed to teach for long.  I am working on how to include more student choice, transforming the way I grade and including multiple choice but not bowing down to it as the be-all, end-all of assessment.


      • Paul

        Multiple choice should be forbidden in math !

    • Joshua_coppersmith

      Another right on! from me.  But to do this we have to give up on the golden calves of polynomials and conic sections, of fractions like 21/345, of fourteen ways to solve simultaneous equations in two unknowns, etc.  We have to be willing to put our money where our mouth is: if math really is ‘useful’ and ‘important’ then let’s teach the math that is useful and important in the likely futures of the particular students we are teaching.  How many even advanced math students ever see the glory of conic sections combining multiple curves into the same structure?  The concept is lost in the details of “was that x or y squared in the denominator of the subtracted term???”  Any real math curriculum would be practically unrecognizable compared to the current now stupidly entrenched artifacts of great ideas past.  Of course, that means math teachers would have to be thinkers, and not just rote repeaters of what THEY were taught.  There in lies the problem…

    • Joshua_coppersmith

      Oh, to be clear,, my comment below continues on to Sarah’s about standardized education, etc., and, yes, points to the idea that a lot of math teachers, unlike Sarah, are unwilling to change.  Education reform is hard, it’s politics, but if teachers were as a group more willing to change, education would change much more easily.

    • Eloycruz

       It’s unlikely to get a kid to love math by teaching arithmetic. Arithmatic is number therory and its not easy. There’s no elegance or artistry in arithmetic, just rote memory and obnoxious pressure.   Math is taught ass-backwards, algebra should be taught first as an abstraction  of possibilities, then in
      later grades require children to come to precise equalities.

    • Anonymous

      I am sympathetic to Lockhart’s lament, even as someone who has a layman’s interest in mathematics but was never able to translate it into a career as a mathematician. Nevertheless, the argument for mathematics as art has been almost as abused as the argument for mathematics as science. I will offer my opinion using Lockhart’s example of the triangle in the box.

      Following Lockhart’s description of the triangle in the box, and the subsequent joy at realizing the way to determine that the triangle takes up exactly half of the area of the rectangle was entertaining. And I get his dismay at the Procrustean treatment of the resultant mathematical formula as a rote exercise to students. However, what I have seen (as a parent) in mathematics is that too many teachers take “the art of explanation” and convert it into “the art of re-discovery” and the result is assignment after assignment that essentially requires students to reinvent the mathematical wheel, as it were, of various mathematical concepts and formulas.

      Although it is a laudable wish that every student could be a new Archimedes, I think this approach is misguided and, I think, in its own way can be soul-crushing to students. I guess it is true that if one kid can re-discover a = 1/2bh then that kid is either a genius or at least bound to be a mathematician. But that leaves the other kids feeling stupid, especially if the whole class is being graded on that re-discovery. As I see it, this new approach substitutes the shame of “non-genius-ness” for the previous boredom of rote learning. They are both unproductive pedagogical extremes, I think. Otherwise, just assign students to prove or disprove the Riemann Hypothesis and wait for the students’ mathematical art and poetry to flow forth.

      It would be great if more math classes included the wonderful explanation of why a = 1/2bh is true, but as a guided story of discovery and as background for the subsequent — and necessary — calculations and drilling to carry out the use of that formula in an accurate and repeatable way. Simplicio and Salviati notwithstanding, I am happy that many aerospace engineers suffered enough “rote” learning to design safe and functional aircraft. To diminish such discipline as “mindless” and “trivial” is, surely, not what Lockhart intended to say, but it is an unintended side-effect of the way he illustrates the problem.

      In some ways, the very valuable message that Lockhart is trying to get across is in real danger of getting lost in the assumptions implicit in the approach of over-using the mathematics-as-art appeal. All disciplines have artistic and creative areas, but they are usually balanced by areas in which success is predicated on the elbow grease of deliberate practice and less-than-glamorous calculation, or to use a cliche, where the rubber meets the road. I think the long-standing problems with mathematics education that has depended too much on rote learning are not going to be solved by going to other extreme and trying to force all students to be the second coming of Pythagoras or Newton. That’s not to say that some, or most, kids don’t have that in them; but grading them as if they did is no solution to the issue at hand.

  • Tom

    I teach my school-age son that a country’s emphasis on math and science education is mostly about creating corporate slaves: smart people who will work cheap. He’ll need math, but too much focus on it will likely result in a less enjoyable life. So I don’t want him to love it.

    • Hoopz

      May I sincerely say: fuck you. Just because you fail to be inspired by math or science doesn’t mean you should take that opportunity away from your kids.

      And to everyone else, go read Paul Lockhart’s a Mathematician’s Lament, already linked below.

      • Tom

        I do want him to love the math that rich folk teach their kids, e.g. compound interest. I just don’t want him loving stuff that requires a degree yet pays only US$40K per year (if only due to the stiff competition from all the other people who learned that kind of math). He doesn’t love math or science anyway so I’m just not fostering anything different. To do computer programming that pays US$100K per year requires math at the level of only basic algebra, so why shouldn’t I foster a love of programming instead?

        • The Dude

          Hi Tom,

          As a software engineer who makes $100K+ per year, salary is generally commensurate with the amount of mathematical expertise you have. Web-based machine learning technologies are all the rage at Facebook, Google, and Amazon — and that requires a mastery of linear algebra, statistics, along with some abstract algebra. Scaling theory generally requires a good grasp of complexity and combinatorics. And once you’re no longer a coding grunt, it’s math and the ability to design complex systems that drives your career.

          • Tom

            As a software engineer who makes $150K per year, I say that most programming doesn’t require that level of math, and those technologies are destined to become open-source libraries with documentation suitable for a developer who knows only algebra yet makes just as much salary.

        • Princess Mom

          Rich folks teach their kids higher level math including linear algebra and calculus. Compounding interest can be taught to 6th graders. Why would you hobble your child with only a 6th grade education?

          • Tom

            But they don’t teach compound interest to 6th graders, do they? They don’t teach the pitfalls of credit cards or student loans either, in any grade. That’s by corporate design. Algebra is highly useful in life, whereas calculus (of which I took two years) has little purpose. Just look at all the advanced math or physics Ph.Ds who don’t use it in their jobs, because they couldn’t find a decent job that employed it. I know a half dozen of them myself.

          • Paul

            @ Tom : In school a good teacher will give you enough math tools to use when needed. For example problem solving and critical thinking… . Have this tools and the house hold economics should be a breeze. 

          • Paul

            read This as These … math vs grammar LOL

          • Larry

            They also don’t teach what “total compensation” for teachers  is or what “baseline budgeting” is for the government. What does math have to do with rich or poor? Democrats control the public education industry, not rich CEO’s. Kids have giant student loan payments because they believe they are owed a college education for free. If you borrow a dollar, you have to pay back a dollar + interest. How freaking hard is that to understand? It’s a dicipline problem, not a math problem. No one is forcing these kids to take out a student loan.

          • George DeMarse


            Yes they are. The pundits, corporate CEOs, educators and parents are all telling kids to go to expensive colleges to keep up with the Joneses. Look around.

            George DeMarse

          • George DeMarse

            “Teaching” kids linear algebra and calculus is one thing–whether they grasp it or not is another.
            You can teach a kid anything, Sanskrit for instance, but they will probably not pass a test when regurgitating it unless they are in the top IQ quartile.That goes for rich kids too.
            George DeMarse

    • Anonymous

      Let him love what he loves without you dictating the degree to which he loves it, would seem to be the go here. Different minds and all. Enforcing a “don’t love too much” attitude is almost certainly going to ensure someone is going to be shown ways to not like it. And this would just become inappropriate mind manipulation.
      Too much focus on math & science might make your own life less enjoyable – and disagree with your anti-corporate position. But those are no reason to interfere with the natural degree to which your son may enjoy it.

      That is aside from my idea that your anti-science, anti-corporate theories sound like badly thought bullshit.

  • Alex

    “by spring, the pupils described mathematics as less valuable than they had the previous fall, and reported that they were investing less effort and persistence in the subject than they had before”

    Can you say what the exact questions and responses were?  Surveys like this can have results which are very highly influenced by the exact wording of the question, and I’m suspicious whenever I hear something that sounds like it could have been vaguely worded.

  • Venkat

    Abstract mathamatics without any application makes people to get away from it.    Even now epistemalogiest started arguing that math is a way of meditation ( NNT – BlackSwan ).   Mug-up/down maths shouldnt be interesting for even math scientists( considering human side).

  • Hypnosis Downloads

    But how do parents and teachers actually create challenges that are well-matched to a child’s skill level? For teachers, the problem is that they teach too many kids to custom-tailor math problems to each individual student, and for parents the problem is that they themselves often don’t know enough about math and/or don’t have the time.

  • PieterBKK

    less booooring math teachers will help also

  • Anonymous

    I found myself inspired to learn and understand, amongst other things, trigonometry, vectors and matrices when I started playing around with programming simple computer games/graphics. When I was taught these in school I understood them enough only to pass the exam. In fact, in school, mathematics seemed to be purely taught as a checklist of potential exam questions. Having a feel for it seemed to be totally neglected. When you are shown formulae and told to remember them but given no explanation of where they came from, you are left feeling that you are just following procedures rather than learning mathematical insight.

  • StarGazer2112

    Teachers need to speak human language. Like in any other field, after sometimes you spent studying to much of a subject, it´s difficult to remember what was like not to know certain concepts, to be “illiterate” on something. A little bit of linking with the real world and the real applications of all that hieroglyphs would help. Let the abstractions and the mathematical proofs for when they are really needed: College ( or sometimes a post-graduate degree ).

  • Pure HVAC

    Make it fun for them and they will strive to learn more. Maybe i just had really good teachers because I have always loved math for as long as I can remember. Then again I have always loved solving puzzles too.

    Pleasanton Heating and Air Conditioning

  • Scooter

    This sounds wonderful.  I’m a beginning music teacher who was just thinking about teaching music more like math . . . I wonder:

    How do you preceive music is taught?  What’s beneficial about such a pedagogy?  I ask sincerely with great love for finding meaningful ways for people to learn.

  • George DeMarse

    Kids get turned off to math because they fail it.
    That was simple!
    The Sage of Wake Forest

    • brp1056

      Hi George, I’m curious to why you call yourself “The Sage of Wake Forest” ?

  • Lou Hawthorne

    Exactly! My son and I love Lockhart’s Lament. I’ve always taught him that the reason to do math is because it’s FUN and mind expanding, not because it’s useful (which is obvious). You can see the results here:

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  • Schools ‘N More

    I think there are some kids who love numbers and they will be fine being taught math the conventional way. For many others, the challenge as stated is to make the subject less abstract and more real – and this probably starts well before middle school. We have found a few online sites that have games and bring out the real world relevance of math very effectively. Here are some that have worked very well with the kids:

  • Amy G.

    see so many changes to how math is taught from when I was in school. It seems like the NCTM standards increase and
    the material being taught is a lot harder and being taught in earlier
    grades. I found an article that claims
    that standards were increased because we are a Nation falling behind other
    Nations when it comes to education.
    However, with the increase in standards, our students are not gaining
    from it but simply not performing as well.
    When I was in school, the teachers worked to ensure that students
    retained and understood what they are being taught. Now we seem to throw so much at students because
    it is told that is what we need to do.
    Are we benefitting students at all by throwing so much information to them
    only for them to perform badly? What
    happened to going back to the basics and putting the child’s education first?

  • Amy G.

    I found an article that claims that NCTM standards are
    important in math because they help the teacher determine what they are supposed
    to be teaching. If a teacher does not
    teach what they are supposed to then the student will continue to fall farther
    and farther behind in school. When I
    think about this, I can’t help but think about some of the students that I work
    with in school. A lot of them have IEP’s
    and are well below grade level in school.
    However, they continue to pass them to the next grade level and let the
    next year’s teacher deal with how far they are behind in school. When I was in school, if you couldn’t work at
    grade level, they retained you. Holding
    students back because they do not know the material has become a thing of the
    past. They continue to put more and more
    pressure of teachers but do not seem to hold the students accountable for
    learning. To me, this doesn’t seem
    fair. At what point do we quit “passing
    the buck” and make students accountable?

  • Amy G.

    Assessments in math continue to change. Teachers often give a review assessments at
    the beginning of a chapter to ensure that students have complete understanding
    before moving to new information.
    Teachers use formative assessments for grades and to see what a student
    knows. For me, I am not a test
    taker. What can a teacher do for those
    students who understand the concepts of math but cannot get it from their brain
    to paper? Should students have the
    opportunity to correct a test verbally to a teacher to raise their grade if
    they can prove that they verbally understand the material?—Formative-Assessment—Informal-Assessment-of-Students-Content-Knowledge-in-Mathematics&id=2176154

  • Amy G.

    When it comes to NCTM content standards, which do the
    students seem to enjoy learning the most?
    For me, I enjoyed numbers and operations. I was never very good at geometry and to this
    day I still am not. I tend to over-think
    data analysis and probability, measurements aren’t my thing, and algebra was
    so-so. I think part of my problem is
    that I never mastered a lot of the concepts before moving on to other standards
    so I always struggled and never gave it a chance. However, as I have matured I have mastered
    those skills and been successful in my math education in college.

  • Amy G.

    When I was in elementary school, math was taught strictly
    out of the book. The teacher did not
    stray off of the lesson to enhance understanding. Math was difficult for me and when
    struggling, the teacher would give me flash cards to basically memorize. She did not help me make a connection so that
    I could improve on understanding.
    Because I never mastered the skills before the continued to add on to
    them, I struggled with math all through my education. Because of this, I have learned the importance
    of making sure that students can make a connection to what you are showing
    them. If it takes pictures, blocks, or
    whatever, ensure that they make that connection. When I start teaching math, I will try to
    enhance the lesson with as many support items as I can to give it a “hands on”
    approach. I am attaching an article that
    support the use of manipulatives to assist with math.

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  • Paul Hartzer

    I used this article as a reading exercise in my high school math class today, and I got some good feedback from the students on the topic. I did want to point out a missing word in the sixth paragraph: “Students’ own love math was a strong predictor…” is missing a pronoun, but I didn’t want to presume that it’s supposed to be “of” or “for”.

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  • Dan Alex

    Great info to help kids understand math!

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