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Making math memorable

When Mark Ferley’s Year 4 students paraded down the hall to Riyaz Ismail’s Year 7 classroom, all they knew was that a special lesson was in store — and they weren’t disappointed.
Ismail, mathematics department head at the Prep, and Ferley joined forces to create an open-ended math problem for the Year 4 class to solve, working in teams of four or five and using blocks to visualize possible answers. The challenge: determining the number of blocks needed to build a staircase that contained the same number of steps as it takes to reach the top of the CN Tower’s 100 stories (1,776).

“The majority of this lesson is rooted in International Baccalaureate pedagogy,” Ferley says. “It allows the students the opportunity to play and explore as they learn, rather than learning answers by rote. The ability to converse about math will stick with them longer.” 

As the students settled down and listened to the problem they’d be solving, Ismail told them, “Math is play,” and encouraged them to work together on a solution. Each of the team members had to engage in conversation and play, and be able to share the team’s strategies and ideas. 

The room buzzed with discussion as teams began to replicate blocks and to draw the early steps in the process. After 40 minutes, the students talked about their findings with their peers and the two teachers. Hands waved in the air as students demonstrated their eagerness to explain their solutions.

“We both treasure getting the students excited about math,” says Ismail. “We want them to know they can do high-level problems and can take mathematics far with complex strategies and solutions. I want them to feel that they can all be good mathematicians.” 

As the students dispersed for recess, Ferley mentioned that they would have additional time to consider the problem later in the day, along with working on another problem using beakers and cylinders of various sizes filled with coloured liquid.

Noting that collaboration is a key precept of IB programming, Ferley says, “We hope this approach to learning is more impactful than simply getting the right answer.” 
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