Why do children stop enjoying math? When young primary students are asked what their favorite subject is, the answer is often “arithmetic”. However, by about the fourth or fifth grade, the majority of students no longer enjoy math class. Ann Boling, Chapter 1 Mathematics Coordinator for the Jackson, Mississippi, Public Schools, reports that beginning in 5th grade, students in increasing numbers identify math as their least favorite subject. Boling believes that this is due partly to the math curriculum, which becomes increasingly abstract and seemingly less connected to their everyday experience. According to Boling, another contributing factor is that, compared with other content areas, math at the 5th and 6th grade level requires considerably higher level thinking skills.
Mainly, however, Boling believes that math is made unpopular because of the way it is presented. By 5th grade, the active learning techniques and use of manipulatives prevalent in the lower grades have largely been abandoned in favor of an emphasis on paper and pencil drills. But, Boling maintains that most middle-school children have not made the leap from the concrete and semi-concrete stages of learning to the abstract stage.
She recommends, therefore, that teachers reintroduce active learning techniques and manipulatives. She suggests that when beginning a new topic, teachers consider supplementing the symbolic representation with a concrete activity and a pictorial representation. She recommends the use of manipulatives, such as pattern blocks or fraction bars, when studying fractions, geoboards and models for geometry, two color chips for integral operations, hands-on measuring activities for measurement, and, lastly, balance scales for principles of solving equations. These, she believes, are not childish if the activities for which they are used are appropriate for the age level of the students. Boling also suggest using team activities, such as math relays and cooperative learning groups. Most importantly, she stresses that in order to be able to internalize these abstract math concepts, students must have an opportunity to verbalize them.
“They Don’t Like Math? Well, Let’s Do Something!” Arithmetic Teacher, March 1991, Volume 38, Number 7 pp. 17-19
Published in ERN May/June 1991 Volume 4 Number 3