Encouraging children to think mathematically: the power of playing dumb

November 01, 2016

Jennie Pennant from GrowLearning has a great tip for encouraging children to think mathematically: playing dumb! She explains just how it works…

Maths - playing dumb

I wonder how you feel about mathematics? Whenever I’m at a social gathering and people ask me what I do I always find I get a strong positive or negative emotional response when I declare that I coach adults to release their potential as maths teachers or tutors. School days have left many of us feeling ‘unfriendly’ towards mathematics. It may have often seemed a shadowy world that we couldn’t quite understand.  Not surprisingly, the fear of making a mistake or being slow to get the correct answer may have inhibited us from exploring and asking questions to support our understanding. Alternatively, we may have been in the ‘smart’ group who were quick to grasp the concepts and easily able to replicate them. Whichever group we were in, today’s learners need us to engage creatively with them. They need our help to become confident mathematical thinkers who enjoy the subject and relish the host of mental challenges that it offers. I wonder how many of us enjoy the satisfaction of completing a Sudoku, for example? Let’s aim for many more in the future.

See how Explore Learning helps children develop a passion for maths

Here’s a top tip for this adventure. Try playing dumb. Children love it if the adult is wrong or not sure what to do. They are only too keen to point out our mistake. Believe me, I know! So when you are looking at a calculation together, try saying, ‘I think that the answer is… (and give an incorrect answer.) Do you agree with me?’ Or if the child has completed the calculation, try saying, ‘That’s interesting. I thought the answer was… (again give an incorrect answer). I wonder which one of us is right?’ Alternatively, when the child asks you if their answer is right try saying, ‘Are you sure?’ even if their answer is right and see how certain they are about their answer. It’s really important that they learn to convince themselves (easy!), convince someone else (a little harder) and then convince a sceptic (very hard). Feel free to play the sceptic. This will help the child think more deeply about their strategy for this calculation and if they truly understand what they are doing.

Another great idea is to ask the children for a silly answer when you are starting a calculation. For example, let’s take the calculation 46 + 27. Silly answers could be 2, 2 million, 0.5 or even square! Every child can give a silly answer without the fear of being wrong. The child who gives the silly answer, or another child, can then be invited to explain why a particular answer is silly.  And here comes another opportunity for you to play dumb. When the child gives their explanation you may choose to say, ‘I am not sure I followed that. Can you explain that again please?’. This will help them refine their explanation and, hopefully, make it clearer.

Have fun, enjoy playing dumb and see how it helps the children to gain confidence in their mathematical thinking!

Jennie Pennant is a professional development coach, consultant and trainer who is passionate about empowering professional learning communities to support children to develop as confident, competent and enthusiastic young mathematicians who are fluent and flexible problem solvers with a set of skills designed for the challenges of the 21st century.

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