Math learning has never had a reputation for being glamorous. Next to subjects like reading, history and even science, math can come off as dry and less interesting.
As a former public school teacher, I’ve always believed that the disinterest that American students have when it comes to math subjects stems from the fact that it doesn’t entertain them the same way other subjects do. There is no “face” to put with math, no glossy photos of historical figures, or cool plants, or exotic animals.
Though the applications of math extend well beyond the numbers on a page, the teaching of it has often been limited to those constraints, particularly in K-12 classrooms. As a result, American K-12 students trail much of the developed world when it comes to math achievements, and more than half of high school graduates are not adequately prepared to succeed in a college math course. Research has found that falling behind in math learning starts early too, with first-grade students who do not understand basic numerals struggling to ever catch up.
New Approaches Needed for Math Learning
It’s a problem that educators are trying to remedy by making math learning fun and more engaging, starting at a very young age. Though educators are certainly behind this push, outside industries are also making strides to turn the traditional presentation of math concepts on their heads in order to reach students more effectively. An emphasis on making math learning fun and engaging is all the rage in K-12 educational development – from mobile applications to YouTube videos. I’ve written before about Mathbreakers, a role-playing adventure application that weaves math concepts into the fun. The technology behind this app draws in its players in an almost-addicting way, sharpening their critical thinking math skills in a setting that is comfortable for them.
Overlapping math with other concepts is one way that the education and technology industries are trying to take the stigma away from “hard” math to make it more applicable to other learning areas. It makes sense. Oxford and King’s College London researchers recently discovered that 50 percent of the genes used that influence a child’s reading ability also impact mathematics aptitude. Math learning is not an island; it impacts and builds upon other subject areas and should therefore be integrated with them.
Integrating Math and Music
One subject area that has long been associated with heightening math skills and aptitude is music. The so-called “Mozart Effect” has proven that children exposed to classical music perform better on spatial and other mathematical tasks. The patterns and the rhythms in the music essentially train the brain for math learning, particularly if that music is introduced in the first five years of life. Building on that knowledge, and giving it a technological boost, products like Math Musical Minds introduce children to math in a fun and yes, musical, way well before they start official K-12 learning. Aimed at 2 to 5 year olds, Math Musical Minds uses original music, characters and animation to bring math learning to life in ways that are natural to kids and the playful learning spirit of early childhood education.
In the Math Musical Minds videos, friendly characters encourage their viewers to sing along, tap in rhythm and use math concepts seamlessly alongside the music.
Dr. Anne-Marie Oreskovich is the founder of Math Musical Minds, and a highly educated mathematician and musician whose degrees are from Oxford and Harvard. As a young woman, Dr. Oreskovich visited children’s hospitals as a volunteer singer, bringing the joy of music to those confined in hospital beds. This experience led to her founding groups of volunteers on both coasts, in Boston and in Los Angeles, which spent their spare time singing in children’s hospitals.
When she herself was injured in a car accident years later, and turned to music as a coping mechanism, she decided to create a downloadable version of the musical therapeutic entertainment that she had given children for years. It was a reminder to her that music permeates every situation, bringing it new perspective and motivation. That affirmation led her to brainstorm ways to combine her two subjects of expertise, math and music, into learning tools that were not intimidating for kids. The result? Math Musical Minds.
I got the chance to view several of the Math Musical Minds videos and it would have been tough not to tap along to the beat and follow the lead of the lovable characters on the screen. Instead of introducing math concepts and then looking for fun or practical applications, Math Musical Minds does the reverse – gets kids having fun first and then deconstructs the math behind it (and even that is a stretch – most of it is just about having fun with music in a calculated way). The same approach is used in a separate line of videos that deal with “scary” topics for the age group like going to the doctor or the being in the hospital.
For math learning to overcome its longstanding reputation of being impersonal, intimidating and difficult, its basic concepts need new introductions when it comes to this next generation of K-12 learners. Initiatives like Math Musical Minds are spot on in recognizing this need, and targeting kids with a fresh message regarding math – one that emphasizes real-life applications and even some fun along the way, too.
Kristen Rencher, Social Media and Online Community Engagement Coordinator. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)