THE BLOG
12/16/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

How I Transformed Math From Misery to Magic

I am not writing a blog about math because I love it. I hated math in grade school. When I was 8 years old I told my parents that I was stupid and would never understand it because math was "for the smart kids." Today it hurts me to hear the words smart or dumb in the classroom because I know that I would have been the "dumb kid" if I hadn't decided to convert math problems into stories. This lack of math motivation amongst us kids is a huge problem because math is vital to our future careers. According to research, majoring in math correlates to a higher salary. So how do we make math engaging for the masses, and what is one thing that humans all over the world love? Storytelling.

Everyone knows Cinderella, Pinocchio and Superman, and you remember those stories for a lifetime. However, you probably will not remember the formulas you memorized in middle school. The math problems do not have colorful plots with characters that you could relate to like a movie or book. Context and stories matter when it comes to learning and retaining knowledge, and that's why most kids, particularly girls, rapidly lose interest in math by fifth grade. Arithmetic starts with adding and subtracting apples -- something that kids can use in their daily lives. But by fifth grade, math becomes a frantic and mysterious search for x. So how do we combine these two forces, math and stories, to make formulas more memorable?

When you are learning a lesson or moral in a story you do not even realize you're being taught. Not only do you retain it, you become so engaged that you strive to become the hero in the story. This is because stories have been used to teach us since the dawn of humanity. Every culture, empire and civilization has fables that feature a hero whose action-packed journey shows us how to behave and prosper as a successful individual. It was never intended for stories to be separated from learning. Not until the last century did we build a brick wall to separate facts from fun, leaving colorful narratives on one side and equations on the other.

If stories are a part of who we are as humans, then why not teach math as a heroic journey in which the characters are numbers and the problems are compelling stories? Why not slay the dragon of Pi and live happily ever after in the faraway land of Algebra?

On my non-profit website, Storybookmath.org, we make videos and curriculum that do just that. We ask ourselves what are the three necessary ingredients to create a story? You need a hero (preferably with some odd idiosyncrasies and sidekicks), a colorful setting and a problem to solve -- and math is really good at solving problems.

For example, we created a video about a late night talk show where the guests were three statistical concepts -- the mean, median and mode. Each guest explained his/her way to calculate the average number in a group of numbers. The "mean" was bossy, tough, but overall just an average guy -- pun intended. The "mode" character was an egotistical fashionista because the mode is the most frequently repeated number in an average, and, therefore, the most popular. The "median" was a geeky character who was always trying to get in the middle of the numbers. After watching that video, you'll never forget mean, median and mode because they became familiar, fun characters. Math, like everything else in life, becomes memorable when it's a story.

You can do this with any mathematical concept, like fractions. When changing a fraction into a decimal, you must divide the top number by the bottom number. It seems simple, but how do you make this memorable for a third grader? And how do you make these into a story? First, we have to ask what characters do third graders love? They adore stories of cowboys, princesses and pirates. If we make the top number a cowboy and the bottom number a horse, for example, it's easier to remember which goes into the "division house." Should horses sleep inside? No, the only logical thing to do would be to put the cowboy in the house. That's another simple story that captures the concept.

So if you are a teacher, a parent or student who hears the words "smart or dumb" in math class, think of a fun story and the math will soar like superman.