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To know math is to love math. But what if loving math is the first step to knowledge?

Math class is known for many things, but “favorite school subject” would likely not be one of them. And if there is merit in the relationship between things we like, and the things we do well, then it should come as no surprise that math performance results remain sluggish across the US, and indeed worldwide. ACT’s own Condition report on the 2018 US high school graduates shows math scores declining over the past several years.

So what are we to do, if anything, to get math results onto the podium of contenders for “favorite school subject?”

When in doubt, look to brain research for inspiration. Taking into account that this post is by no means a meta-analysis of brain research as it relates to learning, a simple core principle is that we’ve got to want to learn (math) in order to actually learn (math).

Put simply, and speaking as both teacher and parent, if there is one thing I know, it’s that my students/kids don’t learn (or even listen for that matter), when they don’t want to. And no matter how hard I might try, without their willingness to want to learn, learning just isn’t going to happen in any meaningful way.

That said, it would seem that a fundamental precursor to improving math learning and—as a consequence—math test results, is for our students to want to learn math. Sounds simple—problem solved!

The good news in this line of thinking is that it doesn’t require any outside changes beyond my (or your) sphere of influence. In short, if the keystone variable is “want to learn” then we can stop worrying about curriculum or policy changes that are way out of our control as teachers, and students. What’s more, as teachers, creating the conditions for “wanting to learn” is arguably a more tangible task than deciphering the alchemy of knowledge and skills acquisition.

The even better news: we all know teachers and, dare I say, technologies that can help.

Let’s start with teachers—great teachers. Master teachers. And even though it might not be possible to achieve the same level of ease and grace in the classroom, there are conditions for learning created by Master Teachers that are readily replicated and can translate into any classroom setting.

For example, love of the subject and passion for learning. If there is one surefire way to get people interested in something and inspire a desire to learn, it’s passion and belief in the value of your subject. Consider, for example, the exploration of the Golden Ratio by Ben Sparks. No matter your level of knowledge or interest in this particular topic or math, the joy in the exposition of the subject by Ben is contagious, inspiring beginnings of “wanting to learn” as we try to understand what it is that is so special about the Golden Ratio and why Ben likes it so much!

Given the choice of Master Teacher or technology, I know which one I would choose. But just the same, consider technology: the great leveler and master of none.

Technologies, particularly free and open technologies—and their communities—have opened up learning beyond the limitations of single teachers standing in a room of students. Suddenly, love of the subject, indeed the beauty to be found in any subject, is easily translatable and transmittable outside the classroom and beyond. ACT Academy, for example, serves as a repository of learning and test preparation materials under conditions which provide for individualized learning needs, level and pace. Parents who might consider their own subject knowledge truncated can, without difficulty, access tools and resources to share and inspire their children. Students can explore math through a novel and self-directed medium, without limitation.

What’s more, the opportunity to explore math in new and meaningful ways has never been greater with technologies like augmented and mixed reality from GeoGebra. With these tools, instead of just imagining the function of an object to study, a real object—a football for example, or classic mathematical construction such as a pyramid—could be created and explored in virtual form, allowing one to walk around it, through it, or make enormous or small enough to fit in one’s hand.

In my own utopic view of math class, I see a student readying her/himself for school over breakfast, phone in hand, and in response to a (justifiable) parental retort to “put down your phone at the breakfast table” the student turns and passes the phone to the parent only to reveal a perfectly shaped bright shiny blue vase, a.k.a. z = x² + y², hovering just off the surface of the table, created by the student in preparation for math class. Suddenly, for both parent and child, math class just went to #1.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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