Finding the Hook

December 9, 2018

I often hear educators mention an elusive mathematical Hook that will change students’ attitude towards the subject.

You gotta find the hook...

What’s going to hook them?

Once you find the hook, students will become interested in Math.

The theory holds that students need practical purposes to find mathematical studies interesting.  Real-world applications, they argue, are avenues to kindle the latent mathematician in otherwise indifferent students.

This belief is wrong.

Hooks can complement any subject, but their pursuit is often damaging to math instruction.  Math teachers, who search for magical solutions that will end their students’ malaise, fail to appreciate the subject as an interesting standalone subject.  In the process, they veer from curriculum, losing precious instructional time.

Mathematics has many useful everyday functions, but none are necessary to appreciate the subject.  Like any art or language, Math is intrinsically beautiful for its patterns, logic, and interconnectivity, all of which serve as a catalyst for intellectual development.  Children enjoy the subject most when passionate, knowledgeable educators lead them to see its elegance, which helps them make better sense of the world.

My most memorable eighth grade academic memories are studying portrait drawing and French.  Both teachers deeply understood their subjects and delivered them enthusiastically.  Neither claimed that their lessons were essential to succeeding in life; and, I don’t think I’ve applied the learning in the 27 interceding years (1).  However, I still loved both classes, because I found joy in learning new things, mastering skills, and taking on new challenges.  When math teachers resist justifying lessons with a Hook, they can better adhere to curriculum, which keeps students centered on the subject.

A strong math curriculum is like a carefully planned driving vacation.  The route is carved by a sensible, intricate chain of events, which optimizes the journey’s quality and efficiency.  Too often, Hook seekers opt to break curricular sequence by forcing integration and/or accommodating other school events.  Teaching Numbers to 100 to commemorate the 100th day of school, fast tracking a Fractions unit to complement holiday meal preparation, and teaching Area & Circumference of a Circle formulas on Pi Day generate – at best – temporary student interest.  These flimsy Hooks are analogous to reading a novel’s chapters out of order to highlight its most exciting moments.  It might temporarily spike student interest, but in the long run, disrupts the story’s logical chronology, leading readers to confusion and indifference.

More thoughtful Hook seekers spend extensive time creating meaningful projects that integrate other subjects and disciplines.  The planning is deep but the efforts are misdirected.  Any gained student vitality is offset by the loss of instructional time that could’ve been devoted to teaching other topics.  Spending five out of seven vacation days visiting a single landmark is a choice to not see other destinations, and immersing students in projects is opting to not teach other important topics. 

Although well-intentioned, efforts to spark student interest in mathematics are frequently misguided.  Student enthusiasm is greatest when their teacher honors the subject in its purest form, adhering to a strong curriculum, and maximizing instructional time.  Great math teachers know that their subject is naturally engaging, and that they are the Hook to helping students see this truth.

(1) I’m monolingual and rarely draw.