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Donald in Mathmagic Land – Motivating Maths Students

When I started teaching high school math in the mid-1960s, the pedagogue of teaching was what was called “chalk and talk.” Traditional math teachers have made little attempt to use any other pedagogical approach. I must admit that I was the first to learn how to teach all the variety of subjects to my class. This continued with my transfer to a high school. There I taught a number of general subjects – English, Science, History and Geography as well as Mathematics. So my range of teaching strategies was wide.

Mathematics in high school is normally a compulsory subject. Many students cannot see its relevance to their lives or consider it too difficult, especially when the “boogie man”, algebra, comes into play. So, in order to get the attention of my whole class, I used a variety of approaches, including quizzes, radio and TV, and movies. This brings me to the Walt Disney movie, “Donald in Mathmagic Land”.

I discovered it by chance while looking at a catalog of films available to use in your Maths lessons. I decided to borrow it from the state cinematheque to use with my high school freshman classes. I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was a pleasant surprise and just what I needed to show my classes the relevance of math in their lives and how much math contributes to life as they know it. Here is a synopsis of the film which can be found on YouTube.

Donald’s embarks on an adventure in which we explain how mathematics can be useful in real life. Through this journey it is shown how numbers are more than graphs and charts, they are geometry, music and magical living things.

There are so many ideas in the movie that you miss a lot when you see the movie for the first time. Very often, when I could borrow the film, I would show it a second time, telling my classes what they should watch out for. The film was excellent as a driving force. So I encouraged my fellow teachers to show it to their classes at the start of the school year. When I became head of a math department in the mid-1980s, I tracked down the movie and was able to buy a tape of the movie to add to my school’s math resource center.

The film illustrates many ideas in the form of pictures that the teacher can only explain verbally, making it easy for students to understand the concepts and see their relevance in everyday life.

The most interesting development for me as a teacher was that it motivated me to make teaching mathematics as exciting as possible and broadened my understanding of the contribution of mathematics to our human society. It also showed my students and me the beauty of math. In fact, when a problem I did on the board came out that the students weren’t expecting, especially in algebra, my comment to the class was “Mathematics is beautiful.”

I used this movie in my eighth through tenth grade middle school classes. I’m sure it could be used in the early grades when students’ interest in math begins to wane. I am convinced that every school should have a copy of this film and ensure that all students see the film at least once in their school career.

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