It will come as a surprise to schoolchildren everywhere: Learning the intricacies of algebra, calculus and geometry can be fun. So say a team of European researchers who believes they have cracked the code to making mathematics education engaging and entertaining.
Anyone who struggled with maths in school will appreciate how difficult learning complex mathematical formulas can be. Books, exercises and traditional teaching methods instruct students on how different maths equations work, but often fail to explain why they work or, even more importantly, what use they have in the real world. This gap between what is taught in the classroom and what applies in reality has widened further in recent years as new technology, the internet and computer games have made traditional teaching methods seem antiquated and out of touch.
"Students are increasingly living in two worlds: the world of the classroom and the real world... and the two are growing farther apart," cautions Chronis Kynigos, a researcher at the Research Academic Computer Technology Institute (RACTI) and director of the Educational Technology Lab at the University of Athens.
The problem has not gone unnoticed by the European educational community. But efforts to use computers, games and digital media in maths teaching have often been disjointed and sporadic, with results varying widely between schools, curricula and countries. "The situation is very messy," Kynigos notes.
Bringing order to teaching chaos
Like anyone with a serious interest in mathematics, it seemed essential to Kynigos and a team of fellow researchers to try to bring order to the chaos.
Working in the EU-funded ReMath project (http://remath.cti.gr/), the team developed new teaching aids, in the form of software tools known as Dynamic Digital Artefacts (DDAs), and a comprehensive set of Pedagogical Plans for teachers to use within the guidelines of national education curricula. The results of their efforts have been put to the test in schools across Europe and are being commercialised by three spin-off companies.
"The state-of-the-art tools and Pedagogical Plans cover a wide variety of mathematical fields," Kynigos, who coordinated the ReMath project, says. "Some use traditional mathematical representations while others are more like interactive games that show the role maths plays in the real world."
For example, MoPix, one of the DDAs developed by the team, uses animation and games to explain Newtonian formulas. Another program called MaLT provides students with a set of programmable mathematical controllers with which to manipulate objects in a virtual environment.
"The tools are designed to make students think and help them learn how maths works in the real world in a way that is fun and engaging. The tools are not there to help them regurgitate a mathematical formula for a test," the ReMath coordinator notes.
The introduction of this interactive style of teaching can have a dramatic effect in classrooms, something the ReMath researchers witnessed for themselves during trials conducted in high schools in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Greece.
Is this really maths class?
While some teachers took time to warm to the idea and adjust their teaching style accordingly, they quickly came to see the benefits as students showed more interest in class and found it easier to grasp difficult mathematical concepts, Kynigos says.
"Many students commented that they didn't even feel like they were in maths class at all," he notes.
By themselves, the tools can only go so far toward improving mathematics education. But used alongside structured Pedagogical Plans, such as those developed by the ReMath researchers, they have the potential to fundamentally change the way maths is taught and, in turn, students' perception and grasp of the subject.
"The tools and the Pedagogical Plans, which we have translated into five languages and adapted for different curricula, are quite flexible so they can fit into different school systems and teaching methods," Kynigos explains.
Three of the project partners -- the LEIBNIZ Laboratory of the Université Joseph Fourier in France, the Istituto Tecnologie Didattiche (CNR-ITD) in Italy, and the Educational Technology Lab of the University of Athens -- have set up spin-off companies to commercialise some of the tools.
The LEIBNIZ team founded Aristod in order to sell Aplusix, an interactive editor of algebraic expressions, while the ITD group set up DiDiMa to market ALNUSET, a dynamic system for teaching algebra, numerical sets and functions in secondary schools. In addition, the Educational Technology Lab has created Polymechanon, a science theme park in Greece containing a set of serious collaborative games using technologies from two of the DDAs: MaLT and Cruislet, a vector-driven geographic navigator.
"Since the exhibit was set up at the beginning of October 2009 [many thousands of] schoolchildren have visited it on school trips," Kynigos notes. "It shows that there is definitely interest in maths if it is presented the right way."
The partners behind the ReMath project, which received funding from the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, plan to present the results of their work at the 34th World Conference on the Psychology of Mathematics Education taking place in Brazil in July. They hope to elicit interest from public school systems and private education providers for their new approach to mathematics education.
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