A Frank Sinatra Approach to Teaching Math –

And Fostering Creative Thinking

By   Shlomo Maital   

    “ Yes, there were times…I’m sure you knew…..When I bit off more than I could chew….But through it all when there was doubt….I ate it up and spit it out….I faced it all   And I stood tall     And did it my way”

     I’m in Basel, Switzerland, attending a school psychology conference with my wife. Yesterday I presented a Poster on “can effective creativity be taught to, and learned by, students?”   Effective creativity is defined as having creative ideas and successfully implementing them. Of course, the really hard part is implementation.

     A young psychologist approached me, at my Poster, and described her partner’s unique method for fostering creativity in teaching math. Now, in general, high school math teachers teach “the right way” to solve problems. They describe a problem, show how to solve it, and demand that students use this approach in solving similar ones. Our son often came home from high school with big X’s – because he successfully solved a math problem in a way other than what the teacher described.

   Now, math is a tool, a powerful one. Is there room for creativity in a math classroom?

   There is indeed.   Here is what the Swiss psychologist described, and how I believe math (and everything) should be taught, to foster creativity:

    I gladly describe to you the teaching technique my partner uses as opposed to a more broadly conventional teaching style here in Europe or even America:    

    Most teachers in high school mathematics, when introducing new mathematical topics from the curriculum, will show the students a problem on the blackboard and will solve it in front of the class to make their point. Whether it is a hard or easy level of a problem does vary sometimes of course, from teacher to teacher. Afterward they will ask their students to solve similar easy problems and from there will offer tougher and tougher ones for them to elevate their thinking skills for the problem.  

What makes my partner’s approach different -and as I have been told, it is a typical Asian style of teaching- is that he wants to really elevate the students capability to find creative mathematical solutions for problems. How he does it is simple: He will present a problem to the class that is not solvable from first glance, he DOESN’T solve it in front of them at the blackboard.

    He gives the students time to think about their own solutions for the given problem. In the end, he will let all of the students tell the class their approach, and the fascinating thing about it is, that even though some of them did not solve the problem all the way through, they still could contribute to its solution with some unique thought steps the other ones did not think about.

     The second, and even more fascinating fact to me is that even if the approaches to solution offered by the students sometimes differ strongly from each other, my partner will take the ideas of every single student and THEN will show the whole class on the blackboard, how each of the students is not wrong, and how they can solve the problem proposed with their very own ideas individually, as he picks up sometimes unfinished thoughts from the students and finishes them for the “aha!” effect to occur.

    What evolves from that is pure joy from the students side, and creative and strong classes. As I mentioned in our conversation, he teaches mathematics on a high school level at a high school in Zürich, which is particularly known for putting the focus on MINT subjects, and many of the students from that high school will enter into ETH Zürich afterward [a world-class science and technology university].  The children love having mathematics come to life with this approach, and in the end, I believe, what a country needs is curious minds, to bring it forward, not thinking inside a box.

     What does this have to do with Frank Sinatra? Remember his memorable song: I did it MY way!   Why not let our kids be Frank Sinatra, in math class.   Solve it YOUR way! Not my (teacher’s) way. Having trouble? Keep trying. Persist. Learn to overcome frustration and temporary failure. And come to think of it, why not let our kids be Frank Sinatra in ALL classrooms.   Here is a problem, or challenge. Can you solve it? Can you help your classmates solve it?

     At this ISPA conference, a leading Swiss psychologist told us (in Latin) that schools teach “not for learning, but for life”. Life poses challenges. Only rarely are we given a canned easy solution. We have to find it for ourselves. And we have to help our friends and seek their help.

       Why not help our children practice life, in school?   Even in math class?

 

 

 

        

Advertisements