Teaching a Great Math Lesson Part 1: Capture Students’ Attention!

Great Math Lesson Series:

Phase I Phase II Phase III Phase IV Phase V
Introduce Stimulus Whole-class Activity Problem Solving Synthesis & Reinforcement Revision & Recap

This is the first of a five-part series on how to teach a great mathematics lesson, using a simple, purposeful template that can be adapted for any math topic and any age level.

First Phase: Introduce a Stimulus

Lots of math lessons fall down in the first ten seconds: “Who can tell me what ‘ratios’ are?” Seriously, which kid or teenager is going to want to answer such a question? Later in the lesson, there will be time for lots of questions. But ask such a question in the first few seconds? Never.

You know what they say about first impressions? You don’t get a second chance to make one. Well, it’s the same with teaching. I remember starting a lesson when I was a student teacher, saying “I’m now going to teach you about ‘protecting the environment’”, or some such thing. The children were polite enough not to groan out loud, but I could see the reactions immediately on their faces: Who wants to learn about THAT?

Measurement lesson

So, what should a teacher do?

Start with something interesting, exciting, unusual, unexpected, surprising, creative or enticing – which is connected with today’s math topic. Such as:

  • Fractions – dress as a chef, bring in a chocolate cake, cut it into halves, then quarters, then eighths, and so on
  • Subtraction – sing “Ten Green Bottles” while animating green bottles on a PowerPoint slide
  • Percents – bring out a 25% off sale flyer for a department store, tell the children you’re going to buy a new outfit, but you’re not sure if you have enough money.
  • Linear equations – dress as a plumber, carry a plunger or wrench. Tell students you have a tank to fill with water. It already holds 50 liters (/litres), and water is being added from a tap at 3.6 L per minute. How can we tell how much water there will be in the tank after an hour? How long will it take to reach 250 L? Could we graph the amount of water in the tank over time?

The actual idea isn’t that important; the main thing is to grab students’ interest, connect it with the math topic, and then while they’re paying attention, start teaching. It will require some time and effort put into preparation, but the payoff should be students who look forward to their next math lesson!

Next phase: #2 Whole Class Teaching

Photo by author.

8 Replies to “Teaching a Great Math Lesson Part 1: Capture Students’ Attention!”

  1. Great idea Peter…look forward to phase #2 and more.

    Starting with something enticing does flare the students interest, immediately connecting and involving the student with the maths concept being taught. It’s taken me a while to get my head around this in the area of maths!

    I’ve been reading ‘How People Learn : Brain, mind, Experience and School’ (includes theorists and latest research) which suggests that one of the main payoffs for the student is their ability to recall and apply maths concepts to other situations because the teaching lesson has been practical in nature and relevant to the level of a child’s understandings of their world – which you have taught us in class!! It’s an interesting read and would love to see it on the CHC book list.

    Keep sharing your ideas – I know I’m glad for any wisdom that’s sent my way….lisa

    1. Thanks, Lisa

      I think maths lessons need special preparation if they are to grab and retain students’ attention – partly because of the bad press maths has for many, and partly because of its abstract nature.

      Love the sound of the book you’ve been reading – sounds like they and I are on the same page. I should definitely check it out for my classes.

  2. Lol! I remember starting a fractions lesson with a cake one day. Became a great behaviour management tool because I wouldn’t let them eat any until the end of the lesson and the rule was…no work, no cake! I have NEVER seen a class so keen to do maths in my life!

    1. Great idea, Kylie – if the reward for working is high enough, behaviour management becomes simple.
      Fractions and cake seem to go together quite naturally, I guess because few people would eat a whole cake on their own, meaning we experience fractions of a cake every time we eat some.

  3. Basically, i was looking for an effective way of introducing a mathematics topic like indices and its giving me a hell of a time i was wondering if you could help me?

  4. Thanks for sharing that Peter. I’m a student teacher who has been told to up the ante for introducing lessons. Our next unit is about place value to 5000, then 10000. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Deb

      Thanks for the comment/question.

      “Up the ante” – interesting phrase! I assume the person who said this means “make your introductions more interesting and engaging, to capture students’ interest” – is that right?

      I’m going to guess that you are teaching Year 4-5, given the topic.

      Place value as a topic is about the base ten numeration system – pretty dry and boring, though important. To start a lesson on this topic, for numbers to 5000 or 10000, I would think of a meaningful context which is familiar to the students, in which numbers to 5000 or 10000 are important. One important learning outcome you are aiming for is for students to understand the difference, if you like, between 3 digits and 4 digits, or in other words “what difference does the thousands place make?”.

      Perhaps you could tell a story or act out a scenario in which someone was given a cheque/check with the wrong number of zeroes on it. Say, someone won a prize of $5000, but when they got home they looked at the cheque and it said “500”. Talk about the difference that extra “little” zero makes, and how “adding a zero” makes the number so much bigger.

      After an intro like this you would do some teaching about place value and the thousands place, and how to read 4-digit numbers. Some sort of visual resource such as a poster, a diagram on a whiteboard or a website would be helpful here.

      I hope this helps – let me know how you go!

  5. Thanks very much Peter, I like the idea of the cheque. Last night I thought up a little jingle to say as a rap with the class to remember OTHT.

    “Place value is really cool, if you remember this simple rule
    O-T-H-T now let’s go, follow along with me.

    O is for Ones here on the right
    Yeah yeah, we’re doin’ alight!

    T is for tens, next in line
    okay, we’re doin’ just fine!

    H is for hundreds, can you see?
    Are you following along with me?

    T is thousands, another T
    thousands, thousands, save some for me!”

    It’s actually a Year 3 class. Thanks again, I will use your idea. Sometimes it’s difficult to not just say ‘today, we are going to learn ……’ or start by asking questions.


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