Making Math Fun in the Classroom
By Mike Ritchie
To make learning math fun, the public-school system in the Washington DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia, holds an amazing event in May. Each year for the past 14 years, 23 schools have sent a team of students to a math competition, which includes trophies and School Spirit Awards! The district has found that these tournaments not only encourage students to learn math, but also have a lot of fun. The elements of this large community event can also be incorporated on a much smaller scale for individual classrooms and homeschooling.
The game these students play is called Math Dice, a game from ThinkFun Inc.. Math Dice was invented by a 6th grader, Sam Ritchie, originally as a school project. The way the game works is simple; you roll two 12-sided dice, and the product of the two numbers rolled is your ‘target number.’ For example, if you roll an eight and a two, you end up with a target of 16. Next, you roll three six-sided dice, and use those dice and any mathematical operation you want to try and solve for, or as close as possible to, the target number. The game is played with two players, each trying to solve faster than the other.
Let’s say the three six-sided dice (called “scoring dice”) you roll are 2, 2, and 5, and we’re attempting to solve for 16. Before you read on, try and solve this one yourself.
Did you solve it? My answer looks like this: (2^5) / 2 (two to the fifth power equals 32, which you then divide by two to arrive at 16). The randomness of the dice makes the difficulty of each problem completely unpredictable; you might get a problem like the one we just solved, and you might end up with a target number of three, and three scoring dice of one, one, and one.
What teachers in Arlington and elsewhere have found is that when you make math into a game, students suddenly find themselves with a powerful incentive to improve. They want to win! The most reliable way to win at Math Dice is to get better and faster at multiplication, division, and exponents.
Most amazingly, in my experience teachers can translate the fun of Math Dice into more typical, worksheet-style activities. If you give students problems in the same format as the problem written out above (an example written simply: solve for 81 using the numbers 3, 4, and 1), they seem to retain most of the excitement that comes with playing the game. This can be a great way to work on a variety of elementary math skills; a clever tutor or teacher could even design problems with multiple solutions, and challenge the student to find each solution. For example, can you solve for 8 using the numbers 2, 3, and 1? Can you do it in two different ways? Three different ways? There is also an online version of the game! Exercises like this are a great way to stretch your students’ minds and get them excited about math; best of all, they work! (A more advanced option for students is to have them makeup the problems themselves, in an effort to stump their teacher!)
Educators can learn more about Math Dice and how to incorporate it into the classroom here. For other fun ways to learn math through play, please read our post on Using Card Games to Teach Basic Math Skills and Top 6 Math Games to Celebrate Mathematics Month!