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Woo-hoo! Teaching kids to love maths

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Curtin welcomed popular Australian maths teacher Eddie Woo to host professional development opportunities for Western Australian teachers and inspire a generation of students studying education.

Open, gregarious and smiling, mathematics teacher Eddie Woo has the ability to effortlessly captivate his audience. He presents his ideas with dynamic enthusiasm, casting aside traditional textbook explanations, and injecting imagination and storytelling into his lessons.

On a visit to Curtin University in August, the Cherrybrook Technology High School teacher and presenter of ABCMe’s Teenage Boss, spent time showing educators how to engage children in the classroom and help them overcome their fear of maths.

Woo has a unique presentation style that breathes passion into the world of mathematics through rich, colourful examples – a ball in the air, a comet flying around the sun, the shape of a satellite dish – leaving everyone in the room mesmerised.

“Mathematics is a part of everything, there are patterns everywhere,” he explains, gazing out of the window and pointing out the similarities between the branches of a nearby tree and a network of capillaries stemming from a blood vessel.

“It is an academically orientated subject but it can take us to places we have never been before. It is innate in life, it is a story, it has a narrative, it has surprises.”

What makes Eddie Woo’s maths lessons so relatable is his natural understanding of the pitfalls in learning the subject, which likely stems from his own experience as a student.

“Everything you do is dependent on the line you did last. If you miss one tiny thing, a big hole appears. I remember my own journey. Textbooks seemed to jump from one line to another and I’d wonder: how did it get to that? It was as if someone had just waved a magic wand and I had no comprehension of how to get from one step to the next.”

His immensely popular online ‘WooTube’ channel contains a playlist of classroom maths videos designed to fill the gaps in textbooks. Originally made in 2012 for an unwell student, his videos are so well liked they are now routinely made and uploaded to YouTube so everyone can benefit from them.

But teaching mathematics is a two-way street and Woo acknowledges some children have a reluctance to learn the subject, no matter how it is presented.

“Mathematics also has a unique power to make people feel really bad about themselves, which is terrible to say but it’s true! It doesn’t matter how good you make maths look, if there is anxiety there it is not going to work so I address that pain before addressing any of the other things,” he says.

“The first trick is to have patience. Many children just need more time to learn a step. We need to give them that time. Secondly, we should think about what we say as parents or teachers to the child. When they tell us the results of their tests, how should we respond to that?

“Berating a child when they don’t do well in a test is counterproductive. They already know they haven’t done well. The anxiety gets worse. Often they crumble because they have anxiety.”

According to Woo, the key does not just lie in the method of teaching, but goes down to a psychological level and whether the child has a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’.

“A fixed mindset is that you are a maths person or you are not. If a child has a fixed mindset and they find it hard, they just give up. Similarly, if they are good at maths and have a fixed mindset but then they perform less well in a test, it affects them terribly.

“But a growth mindset says that, ‘well I’m not good at mathematics now, I may not be competent now, but that does not mean I cannot succeed. I can grow in confidence and do that’.

“You want to encourage the child to have a growth mindset. The growth mindset is the main predictor of where the student will be in the future.”

He believes mastering basic skills such as multiplication gives children the agility and confidence to tackle many maths problems in the future, comparing learning times tables to a soccer player practising agility by dribbling the ball around cones.

“You won’t ever do that pattern in a match, but you do it to develop the patterns so that you can use it to beat another player,” he says.

Woo suggests parents allow their children to practise their mathematics skills by finding applications in everyday life, such as counting and saving money, and making simple budgets.

He has taken this idea outside of the classroom, earning acclaim as the host of ABCMe show Teenage Boss, in which he mentors teenagers from across Australia to take control of the family finances for a month.

“My stance is not to rescue them immediately when they make a mistake, not even to say, ‘Hey that’s a bad idea’, because they need to feel the consequences of the decisions they have made and sometimes they surprise you! Children are not mini-adults. Their brains are developing and they think differently.”

Over the last two years, Woo has been writing a book on the beauty and usefulness of maths, which is due for release in September 2018. But when asked what his plans are for the future, he’s not looking too far ahead. In fact, he is content to stay on the front-line of teaching.

“I love working at school. I love adding value. What I do can make a big difference, to have a really good, on the ground understanding of the students, not just face-to-face but being part of the school.

“Education has a profound power – it’s no exaggeration to say that it can fundamentally change the direction and outcome of a child’s life. It opens up new opportunities that a child may have thought were out of reach or perhaps never even imagined. That change can ripple outwards and affect not just an individual but an entire society!”

The two professional development sessions at Curtin, Engaging students and eliminating fear of mathematics; and Technology and learning: principles for maximising educational value were facilitated through Curtin’s School of Education and the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre.

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