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Opinion | Post-pandemic, kids can catch up in math — and still have fun

We need to take a playful approach to rebuilding students' skills.

Kids and math: When the virus is beaten and school starts up again, we’ll hear lots of promising ideas how to help students after the pandemic year. 

But there will be ideas borne of panic, too, and it’ll take discipline to avoid them. We’ll be told that since students are behind, with all kinds of gaps in their knowledge, teachers will need to be taskmasters, drumming in the missing facts double-time. 

There will be calls to sort kids into remedial and advanced groups. For math especially, students in remedial classes will be taught via cramming and memorizing, a metaphorical death march through the subject matter.

I hope we can resist these temptations. Mathematics is a difficult subject, and knowing the facts is important, precisely because knowing them relieves cognitive load and leaves students with more mental resources to attack and digest new ideas. But panicking and sending the message that students are behind or deficient undermines them too. If we can help students approach math with a sense of playfulness and curiosity, we’ll find those gaps are far easier to fill in.

How do we do that? If our own math classes weren’t places where playfulness and curiosity thrived, it might be hard to imagine.

But there is a sea change underway right now in K-12 — and especially K-5 — education. Teachers are using games, playful routines and rich mathematical activities to engage their students’ interest and grow their curiosity. 

This play-based approach tends to be more rigorous, engaging and meaningful. Instead of a worksheet of practice problems, students might play a game that involves practicing the same facts. In addition to solving story problems, students might write their own problems and challenge each other with them. Instead of merely identifying a mathematical property, like symmetry or counting to a number, they might build a symmetric design from blocks and see what number of blocks they used, and what other numbers are possible. 

In this kind of classroom, mathematics becomes an engaging, creative, and marvelous activity, with students more invested in the work, more flexible in their thinking, and learning more, in a deeper way. It’s easy to be skeptical if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, but when it’s backed up by teacher support and the right curriculum, the approach works. 

A play-based approach is also more equitable, since it doesn’t require tracking the student population. Classically, the students who were seen as “ahead” or “gifted” were the ones who got tracked into classrooms more likely to use a play-based approach, and the work they did was both more rigorous and more interesting. We’ve seen that this approach can engage students regardless of prior performance in school, since it harnesses their curiosity and natural impulses to learn. We’ll hear calls to segregate classrooms by ability. A play-based approach can affirm that everyone belongs together while being flexible enough to help students get what they need for themselves, and support their classmates in learning too.

So I encourage Seattle parents to find ways to learn math playfully at home, and support schools in providing the best kinds of learning experiences to all students once the pandemic is over. Avoid the temptation to panic, resist calls for tracked math classrooms and support teachers as they experiment and learn to teach kids math from a play-based perspective. 

The disruption of the pandemic has interrupted normal life and created chaos. But there’s an opportunity in this moment to look at what wasn’t working before and find a better way forward. I hope we can seize that opportunity for kids’ math education.

See more of Dan Finkel’s play-based math ideas on his blog and in a recent article in the Seattle Times

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About the Author

Dan Finkel

Dan Finkel is the founder of Math for Love (mathforlove.com), a Seattle-based organization devoted to transforming how math is taught and learned. (Math for Love’s play-based curriculum has been used by Seattle Public Schools for the Summer Staircase for more than five years.)