July 12th, 2011 by Dan Meyer
Forgive me. I lack faith.
First, I don’t think these efforts engage students (same goes for using student names in boring math problems) but I admit engagement is a fickle, subjective thing.
Second, my broader, more objective criticism of these efforts is that in every one of these cases you will eventually have to create a math problem, to fabricate numbers and dimensions for students to work with and operate on after you’ve (apparently?) piqued their interest in those operations by showing them a clip from that recent Denzel Washington movie. Then, when your students get an answer, you will tell them, “Yes, your math was correct and your answer is correct and the world and your math verify one another.” This isn’t worthless. Your students are practicing operations that require practice. But as a sales pitch for math’s connection to the world outside the math classroom, this is worthless.
Imagine you are going door-to-door selling knives. You get a foot in a door and tell a prospective customer, “These knives are sharp enough to cut through a soup can.”
The customer says, “It so happens I have a soup can right here. Let’s try it out.”
Then you say, “Just take my word for it. These babies are incredibly sharp.”
The customer says, “Are you kidding me?”
Then you say, “Okay, well if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at this pamphlet. Right there. See? ‘Cuts through soup cans.'”
The customer says, “But your company wrote that pamphlet.”
All the time.
We ask our students all the time to take our word on the presence of math in the world.
Or we ask them to take the textbook’s word on it.
You wouldn’t buy the knives. Why would your students buy the math?
A better sales pitch? Give them a video from which they can draw their own measurements, on which they can operate mathematically, at the end of which they can verify for themselves whether the trains meet at 2:37.
They’ll buy that. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.