The Secret To Motivating Kids To Learn Math - iLearn @Home

The Secret To Motivating Kids To Learn Math

motivating kids to learn math

Ever been on the receiving end of questions like “why do I have to learn math?” and “when will I ever use this?”

A lot of well-meaning adults waste a lot of time trying to answer these questions. But the reality is, no one can ever convince a kid to learn math because they will “get into a better college” or “make more money when they’re an adult.”

No, as parents, we shouldn’t even try to motivate kids with drivel like this.


Let’s face it. Kids are not really looking for an answer. They’re just expressing their frustration with trying to learn math. And they’re looking for an escape… escape from the frustration that normally comes with it.

So what do we do about this common situation?

Think about this for a minute. Have you ever heard a child say “why do I have to learn this video game?” or “When am I ever going to use it?”

I doubt it.

So why do they ask it in one situation and not the other?

The answer seems obvious once you look at it.

In one case, they enjoy what they are learning – how to play a video game. In the other case, they do not enjoy what they are learning – how to do math.

So what do we do about it?

Many people say we should turn learning math into a game. Then kids will want to play it. I don’t think that’s the answer…for many reasons.

First, it’s hard to create a game that kids like to play. Sure, there are many familiar games that have been wildly successful. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Second, the vast majority of games that are wildly successful are never played by more than a small percentage of kids. It’s because each game appeals to only some kids, but certainly not all.

Since all kids need to learn math, this is a special challenge.

Third, there is a naïve notion that a math game can be designed that is so much “fun” that kids will seek it out and choose to “play it” without being asked or required to.

This is a pretty ambitious objective, and in my opinion, it’s naïve to think it will happen.
And there’s a catch.

We’ve all seen kids waste countless hours playing games on a computer.

But when they put the game down, do they walk away having learned anything useful that stays with them?
Not likely.

This is the fundamental difference in games and learning.

Simply spending time “playing” is not the objective.

Learning requires something much different, and something much more challenging to achieve… useful knowledge that stays with you for the rest of your life.

So what’s the answer?

How do we get kids to learn things we know are beneficial to them but have no obvious, short-term benefit?
At the heart of this issue is what motivates kids.

Certainly, there are games that are described by at least some kids as “fun.” But “fun” is not the only thing that motivates kids…and this is what’s been overlooked. Kids are also highly motivated by success. They derive great satisfaction from being successful.

That’s actually a big part of the “fun” in playing games.

In any game, there are always certain outcomes that are more desirable than others. The “fun” in playing the game is achieving these outcomes instead of the less-desirable outcomes, like failure.

When you watch a young kid learning math with a highly successful teaching program, all outward appearances are that they are “having fun.” They smile a lot, they jump up and down, they bounce around in their chair, they make up silly chants, they wave their arms and do little dances that warm your heart. These are the signs of a motivated and engaged student.

And, yes, it can happen when a child is learning math.

The secret is in how to make it happen.

The answer: You have to make it easy for the child to succeed.

Success is the ideal motivator. So, success must be the most frequent outcome.

On the flip side, young kids are easily discouraged, so you must allow them to learn without a high rate of failure. When you consider these together, it becomes clear that motivating kids to learn math can be boiled to a simple mathematical relationship. It’s the ratio of success to failure. The higher the rate of success and the lower the rate of failure, the more motivated the child will be.

And when you get it right, you’ll never have to answer the dreaded question: “why do I need to learn math?” ever again.

But, of course, the really important issue is how you achieve this goal.

To see how the learning experience can be designed to make it more satisfying and enjoyable to learn math, start with our Quick Check Diagnostic.

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Dr. Robert Collins

Bob Collins is a former college professor and research scientist in the Psychology of Learning at Florida State University and Georgia Tech. For the past 30 years, he has been a successful entrepreneur with multiple companies specializing in instruction delivered via the computer and internet. He is the founder and CEO of iLearn, which provides online instruction in math for K-12 schools, parents and students at home, and college developmental math since 1989.

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