Say the words “math class” and you’re likely to picture rows of desks with somber students hunched over endless worksheets—the only things moving are the points of their pencils.
Two professors in WPI’s Learning Sciences and Technologies Program seek to shake up that paradigm by tapping into the learning power of children’s natural inclination to move and play. Although the two have taken different approaches in their design of game-based classroom technology, the underlying principles, and the questions they seek to answer about learning and thinking, spring from a similar place.
Swooping and Learning
What does it mean to be “good at math?” And what can teachers do to get more students interested and engaged in a subject many find intimidating? Erin Ottmar, PhD, is intrigued by questions like these. The key to finding answers, she says, is to worry less about whether students can correctly answer a bunch of math problems and to focus more on the process they use to attack them. In her research, she seeks a deeper understanding of the strengths (or weaknesses) of a student’s comprehension of mathematical concepts. She starts by comparing the strategies and approaches employed by math “experts” (including some WPI undergraduates) and “novices” (who tend to struggle with math problems).
She’s noticed that the experts tend to be especially good at visualizing and identifying mathematical patterns. They seem to literally see chunks of expressions floating before them with components that can be manipulated in space. “When they talk and think about mathematics, they tend to gesture and move,” Ottmar says. “When asked how they solved an algebra equation, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I took this 4 and I moved it over there,’” she says, swooping a finger from right to left. “They often use verbs like combine, split, and move to describe what they’re doing — and they’ll actually make a corresponding motion.”