Making maths enjoyable through maths clubs

Joseph Magro talks about how informal lessons can make mathematics more fun
Children attending one of the Mathemagics sessions.

Admittedly, mathematics is, for both students and adults, one of the least popular subjects in education. This may be due to a number of reasons.

Broadie (2022) points her finger at the tendency to be inherent in mathematics classrooms, where answers are either right or wrong, leading to attributions of ability as being either good or bad.

Boaler (2015), on the other hand, suggests that the culprit is the “passive learning” that pervades many mathematics classrooms, one in which teachers stand at the front of class demonstrating methods while students copy their methods and work through sets of near-identical questions.

In an attempt to expose students to a more active and problem-solving approach to learning mathematics, together with two mathematics teachers, I organised two maths clubs – one for Year 8 students attending Church schools and the other for Year 7 and 8 students attending St Ignatius College Middle School. Research has shown that through maths clubs, participants improve both their achievement and the manner in which they view the subject.

Mathemagics sessions offered participants a safe environment in which they could engage actively in activities with varying difficulty levels. This approach provided students with an opportunity to tackle tasks using multiple strategies and solution paths.

The informal nature of Mathemagics was intended to support students to work collaboratively as discussing ideas has the potential of deeper understanding. Besides, sessions did not include any formal assessment in order to eliminate, as much as possible, participants’ fear of failure. Indeed, mistakes were viewed as important learning opportunities.

Each Mathemagics session had a particular theme, such as The Magic of Tangrams, Pentominoes a Puzzle to Think With, The Elusive Prime Numbers and Mathematics with a Calendar.

As the person designing and delivering the Mathemagics sessions, one of the key questions I attempted to answer was whether Mathemagics had improved the participants’ attitudes towards mathematics.

The majority acquired a different perspective of the subject

Towards this end, during the last part of the five sessions, students were asked to complete an evaluation sheet focusing on their Mathemagics experience. Judging from the students’ replies, most of them seemed to have developed an increased fascination towards the subject and enjoyment through their engagement with the mathematical activities presented.

The comments (see below) suggest that the majority acquired a different perspective of the subject, one in which it was possible to learn through challenges and games and that mathematics can be “fun” – a term used by a number of participants.

Would it be possible to include the features that have improved the attitudes of the participants to Mathemagics into the mathematics classroom?

All too often, teachers tend to focus on procedures and helping students getting the right answers because of pressures to do well in examinations. Formal assessment was not a feature of Mathemagics and this probably gave participants an opportunity to experience mathematics as a challenging and interesting activity, without fear of being assessed or judged.

Brodie (2022) suggests that teachers ought to use maths clubs to experiment with new ideas that can then become part of everyday classroom activities. My experience suggests that there is much potential in maths clubs for improving students’ attitudes towards mathematics. Besides, they offer an excellent opportunity for teachers to try out strategies that the rigidity of the timetable and the curriculum tend to make difficult to implement.

Some students’ comments

▪ “We learned unusual things that they don’t teach us at school.”

“I like working out problems and puzzles that we probably wouldn’t do in class.”

“I liked the very difficult puzzles as I like challenges.”

“I liked how the activities were actually challenging, unlike activities at school.”

Joseph Mamo is the creator of Mathemagics and a part-time lecturer at the University of Malta. He was a secondary school teacher of mathematics for 38 years, during which he also served as head of department.

Note: The title Mathemagics was borrowed from Sobel and Maletsky (1999) as sessions were often introduced by “tricks” that could then be explained by simple mathematical procedures.

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