The Obstacle Course that is Teaching Maths

Below is the second maths lesson in a series of original maths lessons I have devised over the years:


Maths Obstacle Course

I devise a simple obstacle course using whatever playground equipment the school has.  Slides, monkey bars, polls, ladders and bridges are all useful.  The obstacle course doesn’t need to be intricate, long or complex.  Students should be able to finish it within half a minute maximum.

I take the students out to the playground.  They have no idea what we are doing.  They may ask me, but my reply is “You’ll see.”  The reason why I don’t tell them it’s a maths lesson is because maths has a stigma, and just the mention of it will deflate some students’ expectations.

Usually outdoor lessons require pencils, worksheets and clipboards.  The students are relieved when they find out that none of these implements are required.

With the students congregating around the playground equipment, I tell them that they are going to be doing an obstacle course.  I show them the route they need to take and tell them that each individual will be timed while doing the course.  Each student gets one attempt only, with their personal time written down.  On completion, I order the times privately while the students get a drink of water.

Only the 5 quickest times are read out, so as not to upset or demoralise any of the slower performing students.  Of course, if other students request to know their time, I tell them.  At this point we walk back to the classroom.

On arrival, I write the times in random order on the board.  Using the times, students will take part in some of the activities below, depending on their age and maths proficiency:

Activity 1:  Order the times from quickest to slowest;

Activity 2:   Round the times to the nearest second, tenth of a second etc;

Activity 3:  Work out the total time taken cumulatively over the entire class;

Activity 4:  Work out the average time for the entire class;

Activity 5: Chart the times using Excel and create a chart such as a column graph which presents the data in graphical form; and

Activity 5: Students estimate what time they think they would get should they be given a second attempt.  They will also be asked to give reasons for their answer (e.g. it could be faster the second time around due to a greater awareness of the route, or an improved strategy, yet it could be slower due to fatigue or the pressure to perform).

Even though the main chunk of the lesson is spent doing something that can hardly be called maths, it serves as a basis for engaging the students.  The skills covered in the lesson include measuring time, adding decimals, ordering number, rounding, IT, graphing, averaging and predicting.

It’s a great feeling watching the students get a shock when they find out that the PE lesson they thought they were taking part in, ends up being referred to as a maths lesson.

And ultimately, that’s the point.  Maths is in everything – even the things that give the students pleasure.

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2 Responses to “The Obstacle Course that is Teaching Maths”

  1. Margaret Reyes Dempsey Says:

    Another great idea. And I bet the exercise and fresh air before the math assignment doesn’t hurt.

  2. theteachingwhore Says:

    I needed a math teacher like you when I was young! This reminds me of when I teach essay-writing or poetry–I usually don’t say it is an “essay” or a “poem” until they are finished.

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