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Teaching Math Through Creativity

According to Molly A. James, kindergarten teacher and author, “Creativity is not fluff or an add-on, but is instead an essential part of what it means to be a mathematician.” She maintains that “creativity is the key to helping her students become confident and skilled mathematical thinkers.” Although some teachers may feel underprepared to integrate creative components into their math lessons, cultivating an environment of creativity enhances academic achievement and progress.

From Traditional to Creative

In traditional math classes, teachers display problems on a board or screen and solve them while giving detailed explanations. After modeling the problem-solving process, these teachers set students to work using the same steps to solve parallel problems. In recent years, however, educators have been more aware of the importance of addressing a variety of learning styles. Modern curricula include several problem-solving strategies. However, the presentation is the same: teachers model the process, and students work independently to copy it.

When teachers realize the importance of creativity in the classroom, they recognize that students’ creative abilities can apply to math as well. Students in these classrooms do not learn a set of problem-solving steps. Instead, teachers present problems and then give students the freedom to discuss, investigate, take risks and create. While they work together and analyze how they are thinking, students are improving their math skills.

Teachers in these classrooms find that Hungarian mathematician George Polya was right: mathematical knowledge is “information and know-how. Of the two, he regarded know-how as the more important, defining it as the ability to solve problems requiring independence, judgment, originality and creativity.”

What Does Creativity in the Classroom Look Like?

Traditionally, math class has involved only right and wrong answers. Teachers who pursue creativity in the classroom promote a different environment. They know that creativity takes time, experience and reflection. Students need to have the freedom to contemplate and discuss ideas without being distracted by the clock. With the current emphasis on timed standardized tests, teachers have reason to worry about the more relaxed nature of a creative classroom. However, in the long run, giving students the opportunity to apply their content knowledge to unsolved math problems gives them more opportunity for success on these tests.

Teachers in creative classrooms are also willing to watch students struggle with information and fail. While it may be tempting to resort to showing and telling, teachers find that fostering creativity in the classroom will pay off as students become more confident and independent.

Teachers interested in creating creative classrooms can use a variety of approaches that involve no special equipment or materials:

  • Give students time and encourage them to observe and question. Ask prompting questions such as “What did you notice?” and “Why do you think that worked?”
  • Ask more open-ended questions. When students can answer yes or no, or when the finding the answer comes from the rote application of rules, students will have nothing to ponder or create.
  • Have engaging conversations with students as they work through problems. Ask them individually how they came up with an idea.
  • Ask students to apply an idea that worked to another context. If they were able to correctly solve a problem using numbers, ask them how they would explain it to someone with only pictures.

Creativity in the classroom does not come easily to every teacher or even every student. The traditional skill-and-drill sheets, daily homework pages, quizzes and tests from curriculum publishers are certainly ready to copy and easy to grade. As such, teachers who embrace a creative approach to math education will need materials and supplies as well as a reliable grading system in order to fairly assess student work. Teachers will also need professional development presentations and mentoring in order to implement the creative classroom concept. However, providing a patient and receptive environment wherein students can find the beauty in math on their own terms will be well worth the time, effort and money.

Learn more about University of Texas at Arlington’s Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction — Mathematics Education.


Sources:

KQED News: Using Creativity to Boost Young Children’s Mathematical Thinking

Purdue University: Creativity: The Essence of Mathematics

Creative Education: Managing the Classroom for Creativity


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