Can Math Class Nurture Creativity?

Everyone is born creative. And then somewhere down the line, many lose sight of it. In his classic Ted Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity,  Sir Ken Robinson says, “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it…we’re educated out of it.” Innovation and creativity rank among the highest in the soft skills needed by today’s work force. And yet far too many of our students experience factory-model education rather than classrooms that inspire “original ideas that have value.” What can we do about this in our math classes?

Imagine yourself walking into a fourth-grade classroom. Take a snapshot of that very first moment…The children watch quietly as the teacher explains that today they are going to learn how to convert measurement units. In that moment, what do you notice? What are you wondering?

The first thing I wonder is, “Where is she going to go with this – direct instruction or inquiry?” This lesson may go in many directions…anywhere from mechanical arithmetic conversions to interpreting the classroom world through the lens of linear measurement. My hope is the latter – that she will invigorate her students by using creativity as means of engagement.

How might we bring a creative flair into our math classes? Here are three ways I’m seeing teachers making math more playful and relevant:

Noticing and Wondering

This approach encourages students to engage in question-posing and creative thinking. To get started, pose a problem and ask the students, “What do you notice…what do you wonder?” Students discuss/record their thoughts prior to further instruction. For our teacher above, she may write 1, 10, 100, 1000 on the board and ask her students to discuss and/or record what they notice and what they wonder about the relationships among these numbers. For a more detailed explanation of Noticing and Wondering, check out this two-page description from The Math Forum.

Three-Act Tasks

These tasks provide amazing opportunities for students to enter the problem-solving process from a high-interest, open-ended perspective. Each task begins with a video or a picture of something in the real world (related to your math goal), followed by a related math question. For a bank of terrific, free, ready-to-go, three-act tasks for grades K-8, check out Graham Fletcher’s or Robert Kaplinsky’s The originator of Three-Act Tasks, Dan Meyer, also provides a rich library of middle- and high-school tasks.

Write Me a Story

This strategy allows students to pull math into contexts of their own. Begin by posting a true equation, and have the students write a story that includes each term in the equation as well as the operational action(s). For example, you may post the headline “13 x 100 = 1300” and ask your students to write a story that includes all of these terms and the action of multiplication. Students will write from a variety of contexts, reacquainting themselves with the behavior of multiplication. In the case of our example above, the teacher could lean into a student’s story to shift the class’s thinking toward metric unit conversion.

What are your thoughts about using math class to nurture creativity? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below.

Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D., works with teachers and leaders to develop system-wide change in mathematics teaching and learning.


Leave a comment below.
  • Sometimes I like to pose a contextual problem that students would solve using the skills of the day’s topic – this would be prior to ever teaching the skill (for example, how to convert units). I ask students to “muck around” with the problem – use drawings, manipulatives, anything that might help to solve it. I actually hope they get stuck, because now I have created the need to learn the math! If they can solve it, then I only need to do some consensus building and bringing ideas together, and not belabor teaching the topic. Students also often come up with very creative solution paths.

    • Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D :

      Great idea! I call this “flipping the lesson,” meaning we present the word problem at the beginning rather than the end of the lesson.. A while back, I asked 5th graders to solve a problem that involved division of numbers with decimal fractions, a skill we had not yet developed. Once they figured out what needed to be done, they correctly used an incredible array of strategies, none of which included the standard algorithm. It was amazing!

  • I also like to begin class with an exploratory activity of some kind. With the example of converting units for example, giving blocks, paper clips, rulers and meter sticks and asking students to figure out how to get from one unit to another and generalizing the process would be one example.

  • Michele Garlit :

    I have used the headline and story writing when introducing order of operations in middle school. Multiple operators and grouping symbols allow for some pretty interesting stories.

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