Mathematics educators now vie with a multitude of digital entertainment options to capture adolescents’ interest. To compete more aggressively for students’ attention, mathematics software should adopt the very strategies that have made these other media so successful.
Wulsin offers four recommendations:
- Presenting examples in high-resolution video. "Video lets students watch the sweat beading on the athlete’s temples, see the whoosh of wind in the skydiver’s hair, hear the rev of the daredevil’s motorcycle. A photograph or cartoon cannot beat video in its fidelity and power to captivate."
- Connecting to students' interests. "Monitoring a breeding bunny population would show the process of exponential growth. Baseball batting averages could introduce percentages."
- Showing appealing faces. "These videos could occasionally feature famous sports or entertainment figures. What if Michael Phelps calculated the volume of an Olympic swimming pool or Beyoncé computed the time delay needed for speakers at an outdoor concert? Why not let Danica Patrick figure the monthly payment on an auto loan?"
- Holding students' attention. "Make students laugh through physical comedy or corny one-liners. Introduce them to interesting people with magnetic personalities."
This is a decidedly mixed bag of tricks. The first two of those recommendations are superficially useful but wrong on substance. The other two recommendations suggest students are like small animals — either raccoons, easily engrossed by pretty shiny things, or puppies who can be counted on to swallow a vitamin if it's packed inside a lump of peanut butter. Both students and educators of students ought to be offended.
And then he misses one of the biggest reasons why MTV is more appealing to students than math:
Without narrative, all of Wulsin's efforts are doomed. If Wulsin's mathematical task lacks a compelling, clear premise in its first act, obstacles, conflict, and tension for your classroom heroes to resolve in its second act, and a cathartic resolution in its third act that leads naturally and necessarily to more mathematics in its sequel, he's screwed. I don't care if he recruits LeBron James to tell knock-knock jokes in hi-def about the area of a basketball court, his students won't care.
2011 Apr 19: Wells Wulsin responds in the comments.