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Teaching Math with Games

Do your students like to play math games? If so, do you think of games as time fillers or part of your educational program?

In my classroom, teaching math with games was a serious educational activity. The value of math games can be enhanced or decreased depending on what teachers/adults do. The following are three of the most important principles of teaching that I followed while students were playing games:

• Do not show students how to play at a higher level; instead, encourage them to do their own thinking.
• Do not reinforce “correct” behaviors or correct “wrong” ones.
• Play with individual children whenever possible.

Most of us have been taught that the way to teach mathematics is by showing children what to do. Extensive research into how children learn mathematics shows that children construct mathematical knowledge by doing their own thinking. Therefore, we must encourage them to figure things out rather than obeying and mimicking their teachers.

Also, most of us were told that the role of the teacher is to reinforce “right” behaviors and correct “wrong” ones. A teacher’s occasional expression of pleasure is not harmful, but when the teacher says that an answer is correct, all thinking stops! I know this is a radical thought, but I truly believe that students should be encouraged to come to their own conclusions based on debate among themselves. The nature of mathematical knowledge is such that if children argue long enough, they will agree on the correct answer (unless the question is too hard for everybody in the group).

I have always believed that assessment is much easier to accomplish when using a math game, rather than a workbook page. Teachers find out much more about children’s thinking by playing with individual children or a small group than by merely observing them. Therefore, playing with them whenever possible is desirable.

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