This Episode of “Arthur” Gets Basically Everything Right About Math

Depictions of mathematics in TV and film generally lack nuance. When Hollywood doesn’t hate math, it reveres it, genuflecting before the eccentric, generally white male weirdos taking up space in its highest echelon – your Will Huntings, your John Nashes, etc. – with little in between.

But Arthur nails the nuance in “Sue Ellen Adds It Up,” and reports three important truths about math in ten minutes.

We are all math people. (And art people!)

Sue Ellen says No one in my family is a math person.

Sue Ellen is convinced she isn’t a math person while her friend Prunella is convinced there’s no such thing as “math people.” You may have this poster on your wall already, but it’s nice to see it on children’s television. Meanwhile, Prunella is convinced that, while she and her friend are both “math people,” only Sue Ellen is an “art person.” Kudos to the show for challenging that idea also.

Informal mathematical skills complement and support formal mathematical skills.

Prunella says You were using math and just didn't realize it. It's called estimating!

Sue Ellen says that she and her family get along fine without math everywhere “except in math class.” They rely on estimating, eyeballing, and guessing-and-checking when they’re cooking, driving, shopping, and hanging pictures. Prunella tells Sue Ellen, accurately, that when Sue Ellen estimates, eyeballs, and guess-and-checks, she is doing math. Sue Ellen is unconvinced, possibly because the only math we see her do in math class involves formal calculation. (Math teachers: emphasize informal mathematical thinking!)

We need to create a need for formal mathematical skills.

Prunella says Now let's measure the space on the wall.

Sue Ellen resents her math class. She has to learn formal mathematics (like calculation) while she and her family get along great with informal mathematics (like estimation). Then she encounters a scenario that reveals the limits of her informal skills and creates the need for the formal ones.

She’s made a painting for one area of a wall and then she’s assigned a smaller area than she anticipated. She encounters the need for computation, measurement, and calculation, as she attempts to crop her painting for the given area while preserving its most important elements.

Nice! Our work as teachers and curriculum designers is to bottle those scenarios and offer them to students in ways that support their development of formal mathematical ideas and skills.

[h/t Jacob Mehr]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

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