Nine top tips for teaching maths through the arts

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Stuart Barter is a Specialist and Mentor Leader at Artis, an arts education company helping children achieve at school by integrating the arts throughout their learning. Stuart is running a workshop at Teach 2017, in which he will introduce performing arts tools to creatively explore stories, settings and characters.

Stuart BarterFinding practical applications for maths is key to understanding the importance and relevance of the subject, and enthusing your students. As an experienced performing arts educator, I love to find the links from maths to music, drama and movement, and this cross-curricular approach greatly helps to deepen children’s understanding, and strengthen their learning. 

These nine tips for teaching maths through the arts at primary level are designed to give teachers a boost. You don’t have to be a trained performer to use the ideas below, and with any luck, they may help push your results graph a little further up the y-axis!

1. Try maths role-play
A good whole-school approach is to spend a half-term with a bespoke maths topic provided by the children. Ask the children what interests them (without making any link to maths at this stage) then find the maths within that topic. Something is bound to come up with real potential; if your class is keen on football, the transfer market could be a good model; if they love Harry Potter, you could look at the budget and how the film was financed. This is where the arts come in, as this approach yields some fantastic role play opportunities; haggling on the transfer market, or pitching a film budget to producers.

2. Sing songs to make it stick
Songs and chants not only aid the children’s core music skills, but they stick in the memory and can help children remember maths facts. The times tables are often taught in this way, but you could change the words to any song to incorporate other maths facts, or methods of solving maths problems. Singing also helps build a group dynamic. There are plenty of examples online you could try, from very simple counting songs, to more ambitious pieces highlighting the rules of transformations around an axis! Take a look at YouTube or SingUp for fantastic resources.

3. Use the physical as well as the visual
Visual representations greatly help children’s understanding of quantity, shape, measures, and a host of other mathematical concepts, but don’t forget the physical, kinaesthetic element. Can the children create angles or shapes in the body? Standing children up side by side to represent place and value in longer numbers can greatly help illustrate the concept, and is also a dynamic, enjoyable experience for the children.

4. Try dancing maths
Continuing the kinaesthetic theme, perhaps try asking the children to use the geometric principles they have learnt concerning angles, mirroring, rotation, as the basis of a dance. Try taping the x and y axis to the hall floor, and give the children co-ordinates as a starting point for their dance. Perhaps they then create three gestures, recreating specific angles or shapes, before rotating clockwise as a group to the corresponding co-ordinate the other side of the axis. Again, this gives an enjoyable, practical application to their knowledge, which will reinforce the learning, and make everything easier to remember. A good backing track also helps.

5. Introduce an Acting & Maths Week
A whole-school themed week can greatly raise the status and profile of any topic, or subject area. This can permeate outside the classroom too. I have visited schools where, for one week, all children wear a sticker with a different maths problem, which can lead to all sorts of games; maybe you can only speak to somebody if you can solve the problem, maybe each child’s name becomes the answer to that problem, and they are known as “7”, for the day! The children could devise plays for assembly under the title “Maths in Action”, illustrating the practical uses of maths. A themed week of this kind, infused with the performing arts, becomes a huge talking point right across the school community, and puts maths on the front page.

6. Use the power of music
Rhythm and pulse provide a great backdrop for counting, and number games. Younger children can count round the circle, keeping with the pulse, perhaps going up to ten then back. For older children this can become more demanding, maybe they count in prime numbers, or replace all multiples of 3 with a clap. Use a backing track to make this even more lively and enjoyable. The children could even sing the numbers in the sequence.

7. Remember that geometry is everywhere
Can the children identify the different shapes and angles in objects found in and outside the classroom? Perhaps they can measure and record the shapes and angles they find in nature, and use them to create a piece of abstract art, or a “still life”. This will help make the link between the mathematical principles of shape, and the aesthetic principles of composition.

8. Find maths in stories
There are bound to be opportunities for maths in most books you read together as a class. Find these opportunities, and the narrative context will give the work added purpose and relevance. Could the children attempt to re-build Ted Hughes’ Iron Man? Give the children a number of pieces of metal of different weights to assemble the Iron Man. Then stipulate the Iron Man’s weight. The children may have to cut down (divide) some of the pieces to make the final weight. This could be a problem on paper, or a real arts and crafts challenge!

9. Go on a maths adventure
Take your maths lessons out of the classroom and send your children on a maths-based treasure hunt around the school. Hide clues in various locations that require maths to find the next clue, for example; “Turn 90° to the right, take 10 ÷ 2 steps forward, and look in the bush!”. Bring this to life yet further by setting up the game in role, perhaps you are a Pirate King, challenging your crew to see who can find the treasure first. Again, the drama context helps motivate the children, and improves their confidence.

Consider trying out some of these tips in your school and use the arts to breathe new life into your maths lessons. It will improve your children’s confidence in maths, and your own pleasure and joy in teaching.
 

You can read more blogs from Artis at artiseducation.com/blog