Engaging (and Re-engaging) Students in Mathematics Learning

By Lybrya Kebreab posted 07-16-2018 12:13



Why should students engage in the study of mathematics? For a satisfactory grade? To graduate from high school and subsequently receive admission into a “good” college? If these were sufficiently motivational, we would likely not even be asking this question in the first place! We should engage students, and consequently re-engage as necessary, in maths because we want to flourish as human beings. Francis Su reminds us that mathematical study builds virtuous basic human qualities and desires, such as hopefulness and perseverance, perceptive insight, joy and a sense of justice through play, truth-seeking, appreciating beauty--all resulting in the ultimate display of humanity...love. What greater purpose do we have as educators than to be in a loving relationship with our students? Ultimately, we alleviate the deep anxiety experienced by some students when we ensure our classrooms are intellectually and socially safe places to take risks.


What kinds of tasks promote and/or enhance engagement? To begin, tasks and activities must attend to one of 5 intellectual needs to feel worthwhile for kids. An indicator that a task has failed to meet this need is hearing questions from students like, “When will I ever use…?”, or “Why do I need to learn…?”. Tasks worthy of engagement promote productive struggle and are culturally relevant. Characteristics of such tasks are a propensity towards openness, both in ways of seeing and doing the mathematics involved, visual accessibility and interdisciplinary applications with other curricula, i.e. music, art, literacy, STEM.


Great. We need to engage/re-engage students in the study of maths because it is one of the core connections we have in our human experience. To do so, we need to pick tasks that are invitational to pupils intellectually and socially. Naturally, our next wondering is “How?”. Because we teach unique individuals whose needs are equally such, an exhaustive list is an impossibility. Nonetheless, there are intentional strategies employed by teachers who are consistently successful at engaging/re-engaging students, especially those who may have otherwise given up on tasks specifically and mathematics altogether.

Engaged classes of students do not come about through happenstance. Teachers in these spaces make continual, conscious efforts to build meaningful relationships with students. In short, they are their champions! As such, they are flexible and adaptable in the planning and facilitation of lessons to allow their contagious passions, and those of their students, guide instruction and discussions. This passion, in turn, motivates students to pursue their own mathematical "puzzlements". Teachers’ lifelong curiosity drives them to seek the most current research on effective, evidence-based practices in order to inspire more students to engage in the mathematical community. They acknowledge that EVERY class is heterogeneous and work diligently at investigating the root cause of disengagement by privately and respectfully asking simple but powerful and reflective questions like, “Is it that you can’t or won’t play with us today?”. Engaging teachers are excellent listeners who listen with the intent of understanding before being understood.

In sum, engaging all students in mathematics is a complex, humanizing endeavor!