Project Update Blog #2 – A Formula for Success: Teaching Maths through the Medium of Art

This is the second in a series of project update blogs written by Dr Caitlin Kight. Caitlin is involved with the Incubator through a number of avenues, most prominently, her work on the LEGO Serious Play project. Caitlin has volunteered to write these blogs, to help the Incubator better communicate how our fellow’s projects are developing this year and to give you a sense of what is left for them to achieve before July 2021.

In this blog, you will get a insight into the project ‘Learning Mathematics Through Art at Primary School Level’

Most of us have either said, or heard someone say, ‘I’m terrible at maths!’, as though this is a characteristic that is etched in stone rather than a skill that can be improved with sufficient practice. This attitude toward maths is particularly common in women and in societies influenced by cultural biases – perceptions picked up from common representations, found in popular media such as books and movies, of maths as a male field or being viewed as an innate talent. This is a view that Dr Houry Melkonian, Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Exeter, is keen to change in her Incubator Project.

Melkonian is tackling the problem through her Education Incubator Project ‘Learning Mathematics through visual arts at primary-school level’. It was inspired by the encounters that Melkonian had during her frequent ambassadorial visits to primary schools, where she had been invited to serve as a positive role model for young girls, in particular, but also for all students who might doubt their ability to engage with maths. To promote inclusivity, diversity, and fairness, Melkonian has focused on ‘reframing the existing beliefs and misconceptions, which society has inherited, that a degree or career in maths is not within reach’. Her project seeks to achieve this by ‘formulating a new technique that enables pupils to reconsider any default assumptions about their mathematical abilities and to view maths differently – as a subject that they could like and enjoy.’

Studies have shown that as up to a quarter of schoolchildren – millions of young people – experience ‘maths anxiety’, a condition that can manifest as Year 1, and which can also affect thousands of teachers. Symptoms include panic, inability to focus, and physiological signs of stress, leading many people to avoid maths altogether, and to permanently write off the possibility that they could ever excel at, or enjoy, this discipline. Despite these extreme negative feelings, however, the vast majority of maths anxiety sufferers are actually quite competent at maths, and are perfectly capable of correctly solving a range of maths problems.

Their worries often stem from being forced to do maths under pressured circumstances, having one or more traumatic maths-related experiences (e.g., being humiliated in front of classmates after getting a maths problem wrong), and/or buying into the cultural bias mentioned above – the idea that only certain types of people have a natural aptitude in this field, and that everyone else is doomed to a life-long struggle with numbers.

Teachers are increasingly exploring innovative methods of tackling maths anxiety and giving children the confidence to explore and enjoy this field. They frequently look for role models like Melkonian, who shatter maths stereotypes and show students that maths is for everyone; other techniques include gamification, which can make maths fun by, essentially, obscuring the numbers and calculations by embedding them in a game format, and teaching maths in a transdisciplinary way, for example within the context of project- or problem-based learning.

Somewhere at the intersection of these techniques is the approach developed by Melkonian, who is collaborating on this work with a student Project Assistant, Amber Ellis. Melkonian is not only a mathematician, but also enjoys exploring the impact of art on human experience, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that her unique solution to maths anxiety was to join up these two fields in a way that would be appealing and supportive not just to students who like numbers, but also those who perhaps feel more comfortable with more hands-on, image-based techniques for learning. Designed to foster a ‘growth mindset’ – a belief that talent levels are not pre-ordained, but can increase over time through dedicated practice – Melkonian’s learning tool helps students move beyond pure numbers, instead visualising maths procedures and outputs as art.

Her bespoke activities are aligned to the national curriculum and help students achieve the same intended learning outcomes as standard lessons. However, her methods shift the focus of this process from equations and numbers to visuals – features like size, shape, and colour. This changes the vocabulary of the lessons into one that is less daunting, and more accessible, to a wider range of students. Those who might previously have felt nervous about formulae could suddenly engage more comfortably in a discussion of the lesson. This, in turn, would ideally lead to deeper learning and greater openness to the possibility of future study in this field.

The jury is still out on this, since Melkonian’s pedagogical research is ongoing. However, feedback from focal classrooms has, thus far, been positive; while some students admit that the technique is a little ‘uncommon’, they also report that it is ‘different’, ‘creative’, ‘mathematical’, ‘calm’ and ‘fun’. Another term used to describe the activities: ‘random’, suggesting something unpremeditated and perhaps pleasantly unexpected – quite different from the staid systematic approach typically found in maths. All told, these descriptors are certainly a far cry from those typically used to describe maths anxiety, so this unconventional method certainly seems promising.

This is especially true given that the bulk of this project has run during the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused significant disruptions to learning around the world. Melkonian and her student collaborator have been unable to have much of a presence in the focal schools during delivery of the lessons; they have had to leave it to teachers to organise the activities, which the students then did at home with their parents before engaging in a whole-class discussion to consolidate learning.

Melkonian is currently designing a webpage where she can make the prompts and instructions available to other teachers outside her focal schools. While the existing lessons have been aimed at students in Years 5 and 6, Melkonian is interested in exploring whether a similar approach might work at higher levels. She is also pursuing further pedagogical work to investigate interdisciplinary learning that removes barriers between arts, maths, and education – not only tackling maths anxiety and misconceptions about who maths is ‘for’, but also pushing the boundaries about how it can be understood and implemented by students and society as a whole.

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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