Research making math add up for kids

George Gadanidis isn’t just helping elementary school students learn math – he’s helping them enjoy the process.

Gadanidis, a Faculty of Education professor whose research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research and the Fields Institute, is attempting to revolutionize the way math is taught in elementary classrooms by applying critical-thinking and art-based learning principles.

“A typical solution to helping kids learn math is making math easy to learn,” Gadanidis said. “We connect (learning) with ideas from the arts. When you go watch a movie, if it is easy to learn, you will make predictions for the ending and always be right. Movies work (in teaching you something) when you make guesses but you are surprised. If you know what’s coming next, you lose interest.

“An easy-to-learn approach doesn’t take advantage of kids’ wonderful minds and their need for surprise.”

Gadanidis and his research team developed a framework for approaching typical math problems in an atypical way – lessons are tackled through storytelling, drama and even music.

“Imagine a student going home and a parent asking, ‘What did you do in math today?’ Often kids will say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Nothing.’ They don’t have stories to tell. We design lessons a student can retell,” Gadanidis said.

By way of example, he offered a different approach to teaching elementary students infinity, a concept not taught until high school.

“With the infinity activity, we ask students if you can hold infinity in your hands. Or, we ask them ‘Can I walk to the door?’ They say yes, but when you explain the trip to the door in terms of first walking the half, then half of that – an infinity of fractional distances – that stuckness is where insight occurs,” he explained.

“That’s a way of introducing ideas of infinity and limit without introducing calculus. Students don’t just learn fractions. They understand numbers, but the context is rich and gives them opportunities to get mathematical insights.”

Gadanidis and his research team work mostly with students in Grades 1-4 in Scarborough and the Durham region, testing the approach as early as possible.

And he loves every minute of it.

“I enjoy working with young students; they have great minds and everything is beautiful to them,” Gadanidis said. “I’m just amazed by the power of their minds. I think it’s important that we try to satisfy their intellectual interest and the need to be imaginative and creative, and to need to experience insights and surprises – the big idea in mathematics.”

The innovative approach to teaching and learning math will help lessons stick, encouraging students to share their enthusiasm and what they’ve learned when they get home, he added.

“It all goes back to our question, ‘Can students go home and tell better stories – tell us something about learning?’ We ask parents to give feedback, they complete a form that asks to please share with us what (your child) shared with you.”

But the fun doesn’t stop there.

Gadanidis takes the comments he receives from parent feedback, organizes them into themes and writes songs he plays in a math band called, yes, the Joy of X.

“From seeing students’ work and them engaging with ideas, we’re showing this is possible – that students can engage with ideas taught in high school,” he said. “Principals, teachers and parents have been overwhelmingly positive about this.”


For more information, documentaries, lesson songs and lyrics, visit Faculty of Education professor George Gadanidis’ website,