What Is A Math Circle? (5 Things To Know)


Math circles are growing in popularity, and there are math circles all over the world for students of every age level.  There are even math circles for teachers! 

So, what is a math circle?  A math circle is a group guided by instructors to pursue math knowledge. A math circle develops skills in logic, reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking, & communication. It provides a group where students can collaborate on challenging problems outside of the traditional math curriculum.

Of course, if you cannot find a math circle near you, there is always the option to create your own.  There are resources available to develop ideas for discussions in your math circle.

In this article, we’ll talk about what a math circle is, their goals, and how they work.  We’ll also look at ways to find math circles near you (or online), and how to start your own if you wish.

Let’s get started.

What Is A Math Circle?

A math circle is a group of students guided by instructors in pursuit of mathematical knowledge.  Students in a math circle develop skills in logic, reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.

Students in a math circle often work on challenging problems outside of the traditional school math curriculum.  The instructors in a math circle may use games, stories, activities, and projects to encourage a deeper understanding of topics.

In some ways, a math circle is similar to a math club at a school.  However, many math circles encourage cooperation over competition, and many are not strictly geared towards test preparation.

Teachers and Different Teaching Str...
Teachers and Different Teaching Strategies

Math circles exist at different levels, including:

  • Elementary Math Circle – these math circles may start with topics such as whole numbers and estimation, working up to multiplication, division, fractions, and other topics.
  • High School Math Circle – these math circles may begin with algebra, geometry, and trigonometry concepts, working up to calculus, probability, statistics, and other topics.
quadratic formula
A high school math circle may deal with algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus topics.

Within each of these categories, there may be multiple different levels.  For example, a high school math circle for 9th graders may cover a much different topic list than a high school math circle for 12th graders.

Either way, there is usually some overlap in the goals of any math circle.

Goals Of A Math Circle

The goals of a math circle are to:

  • Encourage student interest in and enthusiasm for math.
  • Connect students who enjoy math and want to learn and improve their skills.
  • Build mathematical skills such as reasoning, logic, and problem solving ability.
  • Improve communication skills and critical thinking ability.
  • Work on challenging problems and find unique ways to solve them.
  • Expose students to ideas outside of the normal school math curriculum.
  • Prepare students for rigorous math examinations or careers involving math.

Some math circles are not competitive and may not have a goal of preparing students for math examinations or careers.  However, the skills that students learn will still help them in future competitions or career endeavors.

A math circle will do best with a strong leader with a solid background in math.  However, supporting staff (guest speakers, teaching assistants, etc.) can make the math circle more interesting and well-rounded.

No matter what, a math circle encourages students to build a strong argument and learn proofs, rather than just finding the answer.

There are many styles and methods that can be used in a math circle.

Learning Styles & Teaching Methods In A Math Circle

Here are some of the learning styles and teaching methods that you might see in a math circle:

  • Collaborative – students work together in small groups to solve challenging problems. 
  • Competitive – students compete against one another (as individuals or small groups) to see who can solve a problem fastest or score the highest on an activity.  Often, this is good preparation for math exams such as the AMC Math test, Olympiad, Putnam Competition, etc.
  • Enrichment – students take courses or seminars to learn new concepts and complete activities (such as worksheets and quizzes) to test their knowledge.
  • Informal – this involves teaching math concepts to students in a way that does not seem like a normal classroom.  This may involve projects or games with no exams or set curriculum.  Games, stories, activities, projects, enrichment classes, often no exams (no set curriculum)
  • Inquiry – Students try to answer challenging questions (perhaps their own, or ones posed by instructors) to apply knowledge they already have.  They may also learn how math applies to a variety of pursuits (such as music, art, architecture, science, computers, and technology).
multiple choice test
A competitive math circle may encourage fast problem solving or prepare students for math exams such as the AMC Math tests.

For example, in a game of checkers or chess, you might ask students to calculate how many possible moves a single piece has.  They might draw out several diagrams, including the starting position and then the possible moves (showing the position of the piece after each move).

chess
Challenge students to figure out how many moves a piece on a chess board has, and then to find out how many total moves the player has.

You can then do the same for all pieces on the board and calculate the total possible moves for the player.  Then, you can ask how putting one piece on the board changes the total (Which pieces will be affected?  Which ones will not be?)

How To Find A Math Circle

One way to find a local math circle near you is to search “math circle city”, where city is any city near you that is convenient (for example, “math circle Boston”).

real estate
Many cities will have at least one math circle. If not, you can find a virtual math circle online, or start your own!

You can also find a virtual math circle, such as the Global Math Circle.  They have classes available through Zoom video conferencing.

(You can learn more about Global Math Circle here).

Finally, you can search nationwide to find a math circle on the Math Circles website.  They even have an interactive map you can use to scroll and zoom to find a math circle in your area.

You can also filter by the type of math circle:

  • Elementary School
  • Middle School
  • High School
  • Regional Network
  • Teachers

You can also find a list of math circle facilitators, or add your own math circle if you decide to start one yourself.

How To Start A Math Circle

To start a math circle, you will need a few important things:

  • A good leader (ideally someone who is dynamic, a good speaker, and knowledgeable about mathematics).
  • A supporting team (ideally people familiar with math education or involved in professions that involve math).
  • Guest speakers and activity leaders (ideally people who can demonstrate how they use math in their careers or how math applies to everyday life).
  • A time that works for the group (weekends or after school, but not too late).
  • A convenient meeting space (a public library meeting room might work well, or an office provided by a corporate sponsor).
  • Curriculum (this does not need to be too formal, but you should have an idea of what topics you want to explore, and when).
  • Schedule (so that teachers and students will know what topics or activities to expect on a given date).
library
A library might be a good place to hold meetings for your math circle. Ask for permission first, and reserve a space that is large enough for your group.

The Math Potentials site has a list of curriculum ideas for students in various grade levels and at various skill levels.  You could use these levels as a guideline so that students can “graduate” to the next one when they are ready.

When starting a math circle, you might also want to reach out to other math circles (nearby or online).  Try to get a sense of how they decide on topics, what activities or resources they use, and how they run the sessions.

If you need sponsors or partners for your math circle, ask local companies, museums, cultural clubs, and other professionals.  You can expand your reach further with remote conferences for speakers or session leaders.

You can learn more about starting a math circle in this article from Medium.

History Of Math Circles

There are now hundreds of math circles across the U.S., spanning from Boston to California.  However, it wasn’t always this way.

Math circles existed in Bulgaria in 1907 or even earlier, so this idea is at least a century old!  From there, it spread to the Soviet Union as early as the 1930’s.

Later, math circles came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe in the 1990’s.  You can learn more about the history of math circles from Stanford University.

Math Teacher Circles

Math teacher circles are meant for teacher participants instead of student participants.  Math teacher circles have several important goals, including:

  • Increase teacher math knowledge and depth of understanding.
  • Help teachers become more engaged with teaching.
  • Inspiring teachers to connect math topics to everyday life.
  • Encourage teachers to find ways to challenge students in their learning.
  • Connect teachers so that they can share ideas and experience.

You can learn more about math teacher circles (and how to find one near you) from the Math Teachers’ Circle Network.

Conclusion

Now you know what a math circle is and what its goals are.  You also know how to find one nearby, or to start your own if none exists.

If you are interested in online schools in Massachusetts, check out my article here.

If you would like to hire a math tutor, check out this article first.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel & get updates on new math videos!

~Jonathon

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