In my previous blog posts, I have explained what mathematical story picture books (MSPBs) are, and their key features that could help to enhance pupils’ mathematics learning. In this blog post, I will attempt to convince you to see that pupils should be encouraged not just to read MSPBs, but also to create them.
The idea of getting pupils to develop their mathematical understanding through creating their own MSPBs is an innovative mathematics learning strategy that I have been trying to highlight to mathematics teachers (and curriculum developers) in the UK and abroad.
Here, I am not talking about asking pupils to create a full-feature 30-page MSPB in one lesson. As a mathematics learning activity, pupils can simply be asked to create their own mini MSPB with just 10 pages (or so) whereby, for example, the first 2 pages set the scene and the problem to be solved by the characters; the next 6 pages can feature three variations (or attempts) in which the characters try to use their mathematical knowledge to solve the problem; and the story can come to a close on the last two pages.
Why should it matter?
When pupils create their own MSPBs, they need to carefully think about the storyline, which requires them to consider practical and meaningful applications of the mathematical concept in question. In brief, they need to contextualise abstract mathematical concepts. Additionally, as the focus is on presenting the stories in the picture book format, pupils also need to actively think about page illustrations, and how best to communicate abstract mathematical concepts and situations visually to their readers. As previously highlighted in my other blog post, not only could learning mathematics through storytelling benefit pupils mathematically, it could also develop their language and creative writing skills and make possible a great cross-curricular teaching and learning opportunity. Equally important, the approach would allow pupils to see mathematics in a different light – one that is less test-driven, and more fun and imaginative. This is crucial especially if we want to improve pupils’ perceptions of the subject.
The preliminary findings of my pilot research with 8-9 years old Year 4 (Grade 3) pupils on the effectiveness of this mathematics learning activity is promising. Specifically, the results indicate that pupils in the intervention class (i.e. those that were asked to create MSPB on multiplication) had better conceptual understanding on multiplication (as measured through the study’s test) than their peers in the comparison class who learned multiplication the normal way (e.g. worksheets and textbooks, etc.). This pilot study was very small in scale, so I am spending this academic year to scale up the study to include over 1,300 pupils across 24 primary schools in the south east of England. Updates of this study will be posted on the project’s webpage here.
From a distance, having pupils create their own MSPB might look like a cute, fun activity. However, when you carefully examine this approach, you see just how pedagogically powerful it can be. I am surprised this approach has not been used more often, because it costs nothing in terms of resources – just a few sheets of A4 paper, a pencil and a splash of imagination!
This mathematics learning activity can also save you time! For example, if the concept in focus is multiplication, you could start the day with your maths lesson by getting your pupils to consider which everyday situations having knowledge about multiplication can help solve problems, and how the concept can be represented visually. Later in the literacy lesson, you could get your pupils to come up with the plot, characters and setting. You could also get them to work on their draft writing paying attention to things like grammar. After lunch, in the art lesson, you could get them to work on page illustrations, and putting their MSPB together. Before home time, the pupils could read their MSPB with the help of a visualiser to their peers. This one activity can be meaningfully integrated across different curricular subjects throughout the day. What’s more – you would have just one set of works to mark.
If you are inspired by this blog post, I hope you will give this pedagogical approach a go in your future maths lessons! You do not need to ask your pupils to create a MSPB in every single lesson throughout the school year: all I am asking is for you to consider, for example, adopting this approach at the end of each maths topic unit where pupils can use this opportunity to consolidate their learning of that topic unit.
Moreover, I hope you will encourage your pupils to take part in MathsThroughStories.org’s Young Mathematical Story Author (YMSA) competition, which is an annual international competition set up to encourage young mathematics learners (8-15 years old) from around the world to embed their mathematics learning in a meaningful and engaging context through creating their own MSPBs. More details of this competition can be found here and you can find winning and shortlisted entries from the 2019 competition here.
About the author
Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai is a Lecturer in Primary Mathematics Education at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education (UK), and founder of MathsThroughStories.org. His website is Natthapoj.org, and he tweets at @NatthapojVinceT.