Bouldering in the Classroom

Preface: this story was inspired both from reading A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart and through various conversations with friends at bouldering gyms, I highly recommend partaking in both activities

Todd stood just outside the bouldering gym where he always went on Fridays after school. He was a Math teacher, and like many math teachers he was well aware how many students loathed his class despite his best efforts to make the curriculum more fun for them. As he checked in and started putting on his shoes, he reflected on his past week. A couple of his students, Josh and Harvin, were really struggling with the quadratic equations he was teaching this week. As their teacher he always felt that it was his own fault if the students didn’t understand the material, that on some level he’s failing them as a teacher. So he decided to do something a little bit different. He gave them both a special challenge.

He showed them both some examples of mathematical art. People who, by graphing various functions and quadratic equations can create entire drawings: logos, cartoon characters, symbols, etc. When they saw these their eyes lit up and so he gave them a challenge to make their own instead of doing the normally assigned homework over the weekend. Josh chose to make a car and Harvin chose a scythe. He also told them not to worry about getting it perfect — just give it their best shot.

Then, stepping onto the mat he let his mind drift away from his math classroom.

There were some new problems on the orange holds this week, and he found a couple three hex routes to challenge himself with (the difficulty of the climbs were measured from one to six hexes, where six is the hardest climb.) Of all the exercises out there, he loved climbing the most because it was as much a mental puzzle as it was a physical challenge. Whenever you look up at the wall you get to imagine how you might solve each problem, which moves, which holds — and each time you get up on the wall you’re testing a hypothesis as well as your strength. Plus sometimes someone comes along and breezes through the route you’re working on, but they might approach it completely differently!

That’s one of the beauties of the bouldering gym really. There are challenges of varying difficulty and you can always watch and learn from those who are more experienced than you. And everyone is supportive of each other, giving advice or bouncing ideas off each other about how to get to the top of a particular route.

That night after Todd went home he had the most fascinating dream. He dreamt of his classroom but in the likeness of a bouldering gym. Gone were the rows of desks and instead of holds there were all kinds of math problems and challenges posted on the walls. The classroom was full of students of all ages working hard on problems of all different difficulties. Sometimes the higher level students would mentor a younger student on a problem they were stuck with — or a younger student might feel inspired by seeing the older students working on a challenging problem on one of the many whiteboards spread throughout the room. There was a little island of couches in the center of the room where students could sit to work, or talk, or simply relax, as well as some portable chairs that can be easily moved and rearranged for students to be able to sit closer to the problem they’re working on or form their own circles of conversation.

The classroom was alive with students talking, teaching each other, puzzling on some of the harder challenges, the squeaking of whiteboards, and the grinding of mental gears. As their teacher, Todd was more of a facilitator, a curator, and a guide. He came up with new challenges to put up each week and was always available to the students to answer any questions or work through a problem 1-on-1.

In this classroom, students no longer shared answers to cheat on their homework or tests but instead they shared their process with each other to help their peers through a problem they already solved. Students were encouraged to talk and share with each other. Furthermore, some students working on projects outside of the classroom like making a video game or designing a rocket in space club would often come by to ask questions and get math help on the project they’re working on. Sometimes the questions they had would even get turned into new challenges that get put up the next week, which helps inspire other students to see practical applications of the mathematics that they’re learning and get a glimpse into the projects of their peers.

It was almost saddening to walk back into the drab desk-rowed classroom that Monday morning but Todd smiled in a small victory as Josh and Harvin proudly strode into the classroom early (!) with their quadratic equations.