I began our math club four years ago with a small group of students who were interested in improving their problem solving skills. Since that first group of 20 students, we’ve grown to 60 students. We now have a program for 4th-6th graders, one for 7th-8th graders, and one for high schoolers. For younger kids, we have a game group. We also have special programs for more advanced students that meet before the regular math club time.
Each year we learn more and make improvements on the year before. As I think about what has made the club successful so far, I think about the participants, the problems, the emphasis on personal progress, as well as the patience and perseverance of the problem solvers.
Your participants should be willing to solve problems at home by themselves and to work with others to solve problems at club time. For students to be successful, it takes more commitment than just attending club. They need to work individually outside of club. Sharing ideas and building on each others’ strengths, participants also need to work as a team during club.
Students need a good selection of problems to solve. Past contest problems are a great source for developing problem solving skills. These are available from the whichever contests you may take part. For elementary and middle school students the book Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition systematically develops problem solving strategies. Books such as The Art Of Problem Solving: And Beyond do the same for middle and high school students.
Rather than compare students to each other, we help each student focus on achieving or surpassing their own personal best. At our math club, I announce all those who do so and reward them with a polyhedral die. Sometimes their personal best may be a 0, sometimes a 5. No one needs to know but the student themselves. When individuals are awarded high scoring achievements at the end of the year, these are combined with special recognitions of every team member.
Patience and Perseverance
Problem solving can be frustrating and difficult. More experienced problem solvers should encourage others to be patient and persevere. An “aha” experience will take place at different times for different students. While it is tempting to quickly share a solution you are excited about, experienced problem solvers should slowly and carefully help others reach a solution on their own. Some students may even need to put the problem aside for awhile. Then when they revisit it, they may see a solution more quickly.
Math club should be a positive experience for all! If it ever becomes discouraging, figure out the reason why. The club format may need to be changed or perhaps a particular person is not the right fit for the club. In the midst of struggling with problems and not necessarily seeing immediate results, a math club should build students’ confidence. I am constantly monitoring how people “feel” about their math club experience. Problem solving skills will only improve as much as confidence does.
Prepare, Reflect, Adapt, Have Fun!
If you would like to start a math club, consider these points. As you begin, be patient with yourself. Remember that good teachers always evaluate their work and make improvements as needed. So if things don’t go as planned, be flexible and try to adapt your plans for the next meeting. With reflection and preparation, club meetings will go smoothly. Most importantly, have fun! Your enjoyment will be contagious.
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