The Joy of Learning Mathematics

For many students, maths is a phobia at par with the fear of snakes, lizards, elevators, water, flying, public speaking, and heights. Though the “ailment” is neither genetic, nor infectious, they “inherit” it from their parents; and “catch” it from their friends. What are the reasons behind maths’ dreadful reputation that divides the society into mathematical “haves” and “have-nots”?

“One reason why students fare badly in Maths is that they are learning it mechanically, often not understanding what they are learning and they are unable to apply it to real-life situation,” says Vijay Kulkarni, the leader of the First Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released recently by the well known Bombay-based non-governmental organization, Pratham.

Explaining the dismal scenario that the report portrays, especially about mathematics – forty two per cent of children between seven to ten years cannot subtract – Kulkarni says that the children are turned off, because the straitjacketed conventional teaching in classrooms has squeezed out the joy of learning, turning the schools into robotic factories.

Outdated teaching methods and an outdated curriculum – far removed from the students’ everyday experiences – contribute nothing to a student’s appreciation of the subject. Intelligence is often measured by the marks he gets in mathematics and his self confidence is eroded when he gets drubbed as dumb for scoring less in it.

Yet, taught the right way, learning mathematics can be easy, fun and can fill one with a sense of awe, with its inherently beautiful harmony and order. Both parents and teachers should convey the message that learning mathematics can be fun. Their expressions of interest, sense of wonder and enjoyment are critical to the child’s interest in the subject.

“Parents are the first mentors for a child. Even before the children can be formally admitted in pre-school kindergartens, they can start playing with numbers,” suggests Dr.MJ Thomas, a child psychologist in the city. Children are playful by nature and have irrepressible curiosity to explore the world through experimenting with the objects around them: see, touch, hear, taste, smell and arrange the objects, put things together or take them apart. Through such experience the children understand their world intuitively.

Dr. Thomas’ suggestions: collect beads of various colours and tell the kids to alternately string two beads of, say, two colours. Tell them to bring red and green balls and make two piles of equal number of balls. Another game could be to arrange playing cards in rows of three or four. These activities can enforce quantitative thinking and help make numbers our friend.

“While the other sciences have some amount of hands on activity included in the syllabus and the idea of a physics, chemistry or biology lab is common, maths is still taught only by the chalk and talk method,” says Dr. S.N.Gananath, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship for innovations in teaching activity-based mathematics. “This is particularly unfortunate as a subject like maths can be understood only when a child experiences, first-hand, the idea of weight and volume, shape and size, number and pattern,” he says.

Dr. Gananath has designed Maths Kits, with charts, diagrams and games, to explain various difficult concepts in Mathematics, like place-value, fractions or decimals. He takes a piece of paper, marks off lengths a and b and in minutes, by suitably folding the paper, arrives at formulas for (a+b) 2 and (a-b)2. Such activity-based teaching stimulates thinking, encourages discussion or search for alternate ways of solving problems. On the other hand traditional teaching in schools seems to give the impression that there is only one way to solve a given problem.

“Learning does not mean simply “knowing” facts; but understanding the underlying concepts that are anchored in experience,” says H.N.Parmesh, head-master of Born Free, a government school in the village of Banjarpalya, off Banaglore-Mysore road. His school has the rare distinction of all the students securing first-class in the VII standard public examination for several consecutive years. Parmesh and his team of dedicated teachers have used inexpensive materials like match-boxes and coloured beads made of baked clay to make educational aids that they affirm have helped the slow learners to understand maths better.

Several organizations like the Akshara Foundation and the Azim Premji Foundation, with support from corporate bigwigs, have collaborated with the government and used computers to capture the bored rural children’s attention, and spur their curiosity and imagination. However, using computer effectively to support teaching is no easy task. It needs good planning and design; otherwise it may end up as an expensive replacement for rote learning, if all it does is to replace dull text with colorful animations.

IT can be innovatively used to usher in interactive learning, as has been attempted by Oracle Education Foundation, which has designed a web-based educational environment – think.com for teachers and students in Bangalore, and elsewhere. This has enabled students and teachers to create personal Web pages and communicate or discuss with each other through message boards and e-mails. The website has made the students more creative and the teachers more responsive and accessible to students.

Games and puzzles are a sure way to aid learning. As children, we have asked each other the puzzle: a goat, a tiger and a bunch of grass should be transported across a river through a boat which can carry only one of the three at a time. Given that the goat will eat the grass and the tiger will eat the goat if left alone, how would you take them across one by one and save their lives? There is a similar exercise in logical thinking in the classic example of a village with two tribes – one which always speaks the truth and the other always tells lies. When you reach a point where the road forks into two paths, with one leading to treasure and the other to death, you see a member of each tribe. If you are permitted to ask only one of them a single question, who will you ask and what will you ask, so as to get the treasure?

Puzzles like this will initiate a lot of discussion. And the lessons learnt will not be easily forgotten; they will be applied when a similar situation occurs.

Learning must be guided by generalized principles in order to discover strategies for problem solving. Knowledge learned through rote memory rarely transfers to new, even though similar, situations.

Teacher-centric classrooms where teacher dominates the scene should soon become a thing of the past. Teachers should be facilitators of learning; they should stimulate thinking, which would lead to self-discovery, so that the child experiences the sheer joy of learning.

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