To compete or not to compete: that is the question

When I first became the coach of our math club, I was not sure if math competitions were a good idea. What if the students get the impression that learning math is just about competing? What if our sessions become just a bunch of competition drills? These and similar questions were in the back of my mind as I began coaching.

Almost two years and many competitions later, I think that math competitions are a good idea IF approached with the right attitude. To explain how I came to this conclusion, I’d like to go back to one of the oldest and most celebrated competitions in the history of humanity: the Olympic Games. (You can get some nice math lessons directly out of the Olympics, but that’s the subject of a separate blog entry). The Olympics is so much more than a contest of who can swim the fastest or jump the highest; it is, first and foremost, a celebration of what human beings can accomplish. It is an institution which provides a framework for focused training in various disciplines and a motivation for people to reach their full potential.

I view math competitions in a similar way. What appeals to me is the structure and goals they provide for my students and me. After carefully selecting the math competition program in which we will participate (more about that in future blogs), we look at what topics we need to cover and plan the curriculum. I view this as an  opportunity for me to “dust off” math skills and concepts that I haven’t used in a while, and for the students to make headway in some important math topics in a fun, relaxed environment.

Did I say fun? A light-hearted, even goofy atmosphere in an elementary or middle school Math Club is essential for an enjoyable experience. Why NOT start learning probability in 5th grade, amidst jokes and giggles about red and blue socks in a drawer?

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