The Key to Making Math Fun
By Anting Lu ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Dec 27, 2022

When most people think about math, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be the complicated problems that are difficult to solve, as well as the painful memories of studying math without really knowing why. However, according to Lai I-Wei, author of Numeracy Lab: 12 Real-Life Math Experiments, it doesn’t need to be this way! Lai has been promoting math education for over ten years and in 2016 he co-founded “Numeracy Lab” with his wife Liao Pei-yu which is all about turning math into something fun, whether it be by putting on camps or making interesting videos, and, of course, by publishing books.


Why Make Math Fun? Because That’s How You Learn It!

Numeracy Lab: 12 Real-Life Math Experiments consists of 12 mathematical experiments to get children to work closely with math in a practical, hands-on way. The biggest difference between this style of teaching and traditional lessons, books, and math problems is that children can actively participate in the process.

Lai notes that the issue has been particularly exacerbated by remote classes during the pandemic when children lost the spatial boundary of the classroom and the sense of routine that came with the start and end of lessons, meaning that they were even more distracted and would often do other things while they were listening in class. For a new generation of teachers, their competitors aren’t just other teachers at their schools but also famous YouTubers and popular online games etc., so the most important thing is to hold the attention of their students by making class fun.

He firmly believes: “We want to nurture an interest in math and motivate children to learn so that they’re willing to take the initiative and master those lessons, then when they come across harder math in the future, they’re more likely to persevere with it.”


We’ve Made It Fun, Now What? Practical Uses for Math in Everyday Life

In addition to helping motivate children to study and making it fun, there’s another benefit of keeping children exposed to math: it helps them develop numeracy skills. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of numeracy in ordinary life. Lai cited popular astrology as an example. He saw a news report which revealed that among the nearly 200 heads of state across the world, Scorpios were the most represented star sign. Meanwhile, a different news source revealed that in Taiwan over the years, Scorpios had been defrauded more than any other star sign. The average person might laugh and guess that this somehow makes Scorpios too clever for their own good. However, someone with strong numeracy skills would immediately think: “The population isn’t evenly distributed across the 12 astrological signs!” and from there they would explore whether these statistics are the result of Scorpios being the largest portion of the population.

“Modern news includes more and more statistics, but we need to be careful about how we interpret this data. Numeracy can help us grasp the actual meaning behind data,” says Lai, adding: “If you have an acute understanding of numbers, you’ll be better at distinguishing whether information is true or not.”


How Do We Make Math Fun? Share Real First-Hand Examples

For Numeracy Lab: 12 Real-Life Math Experiments, Lai actually had children do each of the math experiments in the book for themselves. During our interview, he shared some of the interesting anecdotes that occurred along the way.

One of the experiments illustrates the math behind the golden ratio and how it applies to flower arranging, since artistic works that use the ratio are more likely to appeal to popular tastes. Lai found some flowers and got the students to arrange them, some used the golden ratio while others didn’t. Although some of the arrangements that didn’t use the golden ratio were quite eye-catching, a lot of them were creative in a way that wouldn’t be considered conventionally attractive. By contrast, the arrangements that did use the ratio felt more like they’d been made in a factory as they were all equally attractive and shared a sense of consistency.

        Through this experiment, Lai didn’t just share with the children what the golden ratio was but also let them feel the difference between using mathematical thinking and using creativity or intuition, which also allowed them to experience the different beauty of each.

Lai also encourages parents to let their children experience the math experiments for themselves. In addition to the flower arranging example above, other experiments such as calculating the ratio of different colors in a packet of chocolate M&Ms and examining the mathematical pattern on the outer skin of a pineapple, are very easy for parents to do with their children.


No Matter Where You’re From, You’ll Have a Reason to Enjoy This Book

When asked how Numeracy Lab: 12 Real-Life Math Experiments could grow internationally, Lai says he believes that mathematics is like a language that is spoken all over the world. People from different countries all study the same subject from a young age, we all use the same Arabic numerals and basic functions of arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to express mathematical concepts. Given the lack of cultural differences, Lai hopes that everyone can experience the interesting mathematical content in this book for themselves.

There are also some surprising Eastern elements in book, such as the probability question about a traditional Chinese divination method used in temples and the auspicious number phrases that Taiwanese people use when celebrating Lunar New Year. These elements simultaneously make math even more fun to study and let overseas readers gain new cultural knowledge as part of their reading experience.