What Does It Mean To Experience Math?

Problems worth solving.

The best lessons that I remember from my own math learning were the ones that involved interactivity with hands on tools and tasks that connected to real life. Curious about how others viewed math experiences, I engaged a global community of over 100 learners in conversations regarding math thinking. I asked, “What does it mean to experience math?” From parents to students and even teachers, the responses were quite interesting.

Parents seemed to have the worst experiences with math. Almost every person that I asked not only cringed but also reflected on math as this foreign concept that has yet to be conquered.  To most parents, math happened by completing repetitive algorithmic-based problems in a textbook. They attributed their disconnection of mathematical understanding to their own perceived abilities in lieu of their lack of immersive learning. When I pressed further to ask how they used math now, almost all of them responded that they did not. I found that interesting.

Most students seemed to echo the same thoughts as parents. Math, to them, was something that they did because it was required and mostly through repetitive problem solving. On the other hand, students who were fortunate enough to have had a more inquiry-based approach to learning connected the idea of experiencing math to its more active meaning. There was some sort of tangible event, observation or occurrence that enabled them to make mathematical connections.  They were ecstatic about math and often elaborated on emotionally charged powerful learning moments. There were less than ten of these experiences.

The teachers that I engaged were mostly non-math teachers and like parents, were quick to share that they were not so great in math. Their experiences were formed in struggle to grasp higher-level computational skills. However, that struggle helped many of them connect to their students and appreciate the need to embed a more problem-based approach to learning math so that their personal experiences would not be mirrored in their students.

Unfortunately, teachers who admitted to a lack of foundational skills in understanding the basic connections of concepts were not so confident in their abilities to support their students to the depth of not only math requirements but also need. Students still have excessive gaps in learning and those gaps will have a profound effect on current and future experiences.

Reflecting on Experiences

The most informing part of engaging in a day of math conversations regarding experience was not necessarily in the varied connections but in the interpretation of the word, “experience”. It was either a physical event or an emotional connection and regardless of the approach to definition, the response was a result of a perceived impact of learning or mathematical understanding.

I began this series of questions thinking of my own math experiences from the lens of the physical activities that helped to reinforce thought. The more that I listened to others,; I connected with my own emotional experiences with math. This was new to me because I had not considered the equal importance of emotional connectedness to physical connection even though it is obviously a deeply informing component to learning.

My new response to the question, “What does it mean to experience math” in 140 characters or less, would be…

Experiencing math is recognizing the “why” of a problem & desiring to not only solve but also hopefully stimulate even deeper thinking.

I’m curious to know what it means to you to experience math. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #ExperienceMath on twitter, instagram, vine or even in the comments below. You can even create a board using Discovery Ed’s Board Builder tool!

We’ll choose from your submissions and feature them in a future post as we continue to explore the significance of the math experience.




  1. Jeffrey Branzburg said:

    I just came across your article from a few months ago. An interesting and important question! Math has traditionally been “taught and learned” as opposed to “experienced.” Compare this with art. Young children draw, etc, and we go to museums to “experience” art; then if interested we pursue that interest and “learn” art. To a degree, science as well. There are excellent museums to “experience” science. When I was young I had a chemistry set, to “experience” science. When interest is stimulated, we can then “learn” more science. Until recently, math has not been that way. Now there is the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath, http://momath.org/) in NYC, a place where people can “experience” math, interactively. A very important step in the right direction.

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