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## The Joy of Learning Mathematics

For many students, maths is a phobia on a par with the fear of snakes, lizards, elevators, water, flying, public speaking and heights. Although the “disease” is neither genetic nor infectious, they “inherit” it from their parents; and “catch” it from their friends. What are the reasons behind the terrible reputation of mathematics that divides society into mathematicians “haves” and “have nots”?

“One of the reasons students do poorly in math is that they’re learning it mechanically, often don’t understand what they’re learning and can’t apply it to real-life situations,” says Vijay Kulkarni, leader of the First Annual State of Education Report (**ASHER**) published recently by the well-known non-governmental organization in Mumbai, *Pratham*.

Explaining the sad scenario depicted in the report, especially in mathematics – forty-two percent of children between the ages of seven and ten cannot subtract – Kulkarni says that children are turned off, because the conventional teaching of straitjackets in the classrooms has squeezed the joy of learning. , turning schools into robotic factories.

Outdated teaching methods and an outdated curriculum – removed from the everyday experiences of students – contribute nothing to the appreciation of the subject. Intelligence is often measured by the grades you get in math, and your self-confidence is eroded when you are considered dumb for scoring lower in math.

However, taught in the right way, learning mathematics can be easy, fun and can fill you with a sense of awe, with its inherent harmony and order. Both parents and teachers should convey the message that learning math can be fun. Their expressions of interest, sense of wonder and enjoyment are fundamental to the child’s interest in the subject.

“Parents are a child’s first mentors. Even before children can be formally admitted to kindergartens, they can start playing with numbers,” suggests Dr. MJ Thomas, city child psychologist. Children are playful by nature and have an irrepressible curiosity to explore the world by experimenting with the objects around them: seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, smelling and arranging objects, putting them together or taking them apart. Through this experience, children understand their world intuitively.

Suggestions from Dr. Thomas: collect beads of various colors and tell the children to alternately string two beads of, say, two colors. Tell them to bring red and green balls and make two piles of an equal number of balls. Another game might be to arrange the cards in rows of three or four. These activities can reinforce quantitative thinking and help make numbers your friends.

“While the other sciences have a certain amount of practical activity included in the curriculum and the idea of a physics, chemistry or biology laboratory is common, mathematics is still taught only by the chalk and talk method” , says Dr. SNGananath, recipient of an Ashoka Fellowship for Innovations in Activity-Based Mathematics Teaching. “This is particularly unfortunate as a subject like mathematics can only be understood when a child experiences, first-hand, the idea of weight and volume, shape and size, number and pattern,” he says.

Dr. Gananath has designed math kits, with graphs, diagrams and games, to explain various difficult math concepts such as place value, fractions or decimals. Take a piece of paper, mark the lengths aibi in minutes, folding the paper appropriately, arrive at the formulas for *(a+b) 2 *i *(b) 2*. This activity-based teaching stimulates thinking, encourages discussion or the search for alternative ways of solving problems. On the other hand, traditional teaching in schools seems to give the impression that there is only one way to solve a given problem.

“Learning is not simply ‘knowing’ facts, but understanding the underlying concepts that are anchored in experience,” says HNParmesh, director of *born free*, a government school in the village of Banjarpalya, off the Banaglore-Mysore road. His school has the rare distinction of all students securing first class in the 7th standard public examination for several consecutive years. Parmesh and his team of dedicated teachers have used inexpensive materials such as matchboxes and colored beads made from baked clay to make teaching aids that they claim have helped slow learners better understand math.

Several organizations such as *Akshara Foundation* and the *Azim Premji Foundation*, with the support of corporate giants, have collaborated with the government and used computers to capture the attention of bored rural children and stimulate their curiosity and imagination. However, using the computer effectively to support teaching is not an easy task. It needs good planning and design; otherwise, it can end up being an expensive replacement for rote learning, if all it does is replace boring text with colorful animations.

ICT can be used innovatively to introduce interactive learning, as he has attempted *Oracle Education Foundation*who has designed a web-based educational environment – *think.com* for teachers and students in Bangalore and elsewhere. This has allowed students and teachers to create personal web pages and communicate or discuss with each other through message boards and e-mails. The website has made students more creative and teachers more responsive and accessible to students.

Games and puzzles are a surefire way to aid learning. As children, we have asked ourselves the puzzle: a goat, a tiger and a bunch of grass must be transported across a river by a boat that can only carry one of the three at a time. Considering the goat will eat the grass and the tiger will eat the goat if left alone, how would you go through them one by one and save their lives? There is a similar exercise in logical thinking in the classic example of a people with two tribes: one that always tells the truth and the other always tells lies. When you reach a point where the path forks into two paths, one leading to treasure and the other to death, you see a member of each tribe. If you can only ask one of them one question, who will you ask and what will you ask to get the treasure?

Puzzles like this will start many discussions. And the lessons learned will not be easily forgotten; will apply when a similar situation occurs.

Learning must be guided by general principles in order to discover problem-solving strategies. Knowledge learned through rote memory rarely transfers to new, even if similar, situations.

Teacher-centered classrooms where the teacher dominates the scene should soon become a thing of the past. Teachers must be facilitators of learning; they should stimulate thinking, which would lead to self-discovery, so that the child experiences the pure joy of learning.

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