November 21st, 2013 by Dan Meyer
There's a contest called Math-O-Vision, which your students should enter. Here's the premise:
The Neukom Institute for Computational Science, at Dartmouth College, is offering prizes for high school students who create 4-minute movies that show the world of equations we live in. In 240 seconds, using animation, story-telling, humor, or anything you can think of, show us what you see: the patterns, the abstractions, the patterns within the abstractions.
The contest doesn't articulate its goal – why should we ask students to participate? – but we can fill in that blank with plenty of good ones:
- It promotes creative expression.
- It marries math and the arts.
- It allows students who like math to express what they like about math.
- It has a $4,000 grand prize.
What the contest won't do is convince people who don't like math to like math. Here's why.
I could divide my students into three rough categories. Here's how each one would react to last year's grand-prize winner.
The students who like math in every one of its flavors – pure, applied, whatever.
They'll enjoy making these videos and they'll enjoy watching these videos. But these students aren't any concern of ours right here.
The students who dislike math but wish they liked math.
They'll find themselves enticed by these videos. Seeing shots like this will re-activate their sense that math has some powerful and exhilarating role to play in the world around them.
But then they'll return to the classroom where they're assigned real-world tasks like this:
And the difference couldn't be more stark. The promise of "real-world math" has gone unrealized. What seemed powerful and exhilarating and full of potential in the video is in reality debilitating and tedious
The students who dislike math, who think math dislikes them, and who want nothing to do with math.
These videos will be ineffective. Even counter-productive. Hearing the grand prize-winner say, "Mathematics. It's everywhere," won't entice or engage these students. It'll terrify them. Like telling someone who hates clowns, "Clowns. They're everywhere." Or showing videos of skydiving and bungee jumping to someone who's terrified of heights.
More than they need "real-world" mathematical experiences (like the debilitating and tedious volleyball task above) these students need math to make them feel powerful and exhilarated and full of potential.
These videos are effectively commercials for math. Commercials are useful if someone is in the market for the product. They're useless if someone already has the product and has found it defective, which describes how many of our students feel about math right now.
The pursuit of real world math can lead to lots of positive outcome but one outcome it leads to is effective commercials for a defective product. We need fewer commercials. We need a better product.