Ned Diamond’s math classes exude a joyful energy which might seem unexpected if you didn’t know how much he encourages learning through play — or games — to be exact. He has also been teaching other educators at local conferences, another testament to this master teacher’s talent. The Gryphon’s Roar editor, Andrea Edwards, sat down with Ned to understand more.
I’m sitting across the table from Ned Diamond with a string of 11 jelly beans in front of us. We take turns grabbing either one or two beans at time with the goal of trying not to be the person left with the last bean. I didn’t win. Regardless, this type of counting or Nim game—as it is classically known—is addictive and fun. As Ned notes, “It is easy for players of any age and can be scaled up to add complexity; we often use 21 and 100, and apply the idea of remainders to guide our decisions.” Just playing a few times, I understood that good number sense and strategy were required.
Games are at the heart of how Ned teaches math. He explains, “Games are an engaging way to teach kids. They encourage creativity and curiosity. They require logical reasoning and the ability to communicate an argument. They allow for many ways to approach a problem.”
Ned learned to use games from his mentor, beloved former math teacher John Newburger or Mr. New, as he was known during his 25 years at Crystal. Mr. New was one of several teachers who inspired Ned. As a student at San Francisco University High School, Ned had great math teachers, particularly one who was also a coach. Ned became “that kid who always helps other people with math. I just enjoyed it.” The stars aligned for Ned to embark on a lifelong pursuit of great teaching.
Ned likes teaching adults as much as children. He recently presented on using math games at the 42nd Annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Conference for the San Mateo County of Education. The Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI) also invited him to their STEAM Conference to talk about the “A,” or integrating Art with STEM. He demonstrated 3D drawing, coloring using Pascal’s and Sierpinski’s triangles, and creating spirolaterals. The latter was a popular activity in the workshop and a credit to the collegial spirit of Dr. Regina Parsons (CSUS calculus teacher), who introduced the idea to Ned. “I get a high from training other teachers. From presenting, it is clear many school districts do not have enough math specialists even though there is eagerness to learn new techniques. I would love more opportunities to help train math teachers, just like John Newburger and my other colleagues taught me. I still use John’s games and lessons today.”
Games are one way to facilitate creative mastery of mathematical concepts over rote memorization. Another is goal-free problem solving. In goal-free problem solving, Ned says, “I ask students how many things they can come up with. This encourages them to expand their thinking and to learn to approach a problem from multiple angles.” Ned likens it to playing the word game Boggle. With every shake of the lettered die, a player forms as many words as they can find in a limited time. Every turn is different and has multiple answers that each player will approach differently.
I watched as Ned’s Math II Advanced students teamed up into pairs and work a goal-free problem on the white boards that cover three walls of the room. Teams shared rapid-fire discoveries as Ned would add to information and frequently ask, “Does that make sense?” In fact, he loves to hear the words, “That makes sense Mr. Diamond!” What Ned loves most about goal-free problem solving is when “students come up with things I didn’t plan on; a creative solution that hadn’t occurred to me. It shows them that I’m always learning too.”