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I spent a year working on Dandy Candies with around 1,000 educators.

In my workshops, once I stop learning through a particular problem, either learning about mathematics or mathematics education, I move on to a new problem. In my year with Dandy Candies, there was one question that none of us solved, even in a crowd that included mathematics professors and Presidential teaching awardees. So now I’ll put that question to you.

Here is the setup.

At the start of the task, I ask teachers to eyeball the following four packages. I ask them to decide which package uses the least packaging.


With the problem in this state, without dimensions or other information, lots of questions are available to us that numbers and dimensions will eventually foreclose. Teachers estimate and predict. They wonder how many unit cubes are contained in the packages. They wonder about descriptors like “least” and “packaging.”

After those questions have their moment, I tell the teachers there are 24 unit cubes inside each package. Eventually, teachers calculate that package B has the least surface area, with dimensions 6 x 2 x 2.

We then extend the problem. Is there an even better way to package 24 unit cubes in a rectangular solid than the four I have selected? It turns out there is: 4 x 3 x 2. When pressed to justify why this package is best and none better will be found, many math teachers claim that this package is the “closest to a cube” we can form given integer factors of 24.


The Problem We Never Solved

We then generalize the problem further to any number of candies. I tell them that as the CEO of Dandy Candies (DANdy Candies … get it?!) I want to take any number of candies – 15, 19, 100, 120, 1,000,000, whatever – and use an easy, efficient algorithm to determine the package that uses the least materials.

Two solutions we reject fairly quickly:

  1. Take your number.
  2. Write down all the sets of dimensions that multiply to that number.
  3. Calculate the packaging for that set of dimensions.
  4. Write down the set that uses the least packaging.


  1. Take your number.
  2. Have a computer do the previous work.

I need a rule of thumb. A series of steps that are intuitive and quick and that reveal the best package. And we never found one.

Here was an early suggestion.

  1. Take your number.
  2. Write down all of its prime factors from least to greatest.
  3. If there are three or fewer prime factors, your dimensions are pretty easy to figure out.
  4. If there are four or more factors, replace the two smallest factors with their product.
  5. Repeat step four until you have just three factors.

This returned 4 x 3 x 2 for 24 unit candies, which is correct. It returned 4 x 5 x 5 for 100 unit candies, which is also correct. For 1,000 unit candies, though, 10 x 10 x 10 is clearly the most cube-like, but this algorithm returned 5 x 8 x 25.

One might think this was pretty dispiriting for workshop attendees. In point of fact it connected all of these attendees to each other across time and location and it connected them to the mathematical practice of “constructing viable arguments” (as the CCSS calls it) and “hypothesis wrecking” (as David Cox calls it).

These teachers would test their algorithms using known information (like 24, 100, and 1,000 above) and once they felt confident, they’d submit their algorithm to the group for critique. The group would critique the algorithm, as would I, and invariably, one algorithm would resist all of our criticism.

That group would name their algorithm (eg. “The Snowball Method” above, soon replaced by “The Rainbow Method”) and I’d take down the email address of one of the group’s members. Then I’d ask the attendees in every other workshop to critique that algorithm.

Once someone successfully critiqued the algorithm – and every single algorithm has been successfully critiqued – we emailed the author and alerted her. Subject line: RIP Your Algorithm.


So now I invite the readers of this blog to do what I and all the teachers I met last year couldn’t do. Write an algorithm and show us how it would work on 24 or another number. Then check out other people’s algorithms and try to wreck them.

Featured Comment

Big ups to Addison for proposing an algorithm and then, several comments later, wrecking it.

2015 Sep 25

We’re all witnessing incredible invention in this thread. To help you test the algorithm you’re about to propose, let me summarize the different counterexamples to different rules found so far.

20 should return 5 x 2 x 2
26 should return 13 x 2 x 1
28 should return 2 x 2 x 7
68 should return 2 x 2 x 17
222 should return 37 x 3 x 2
544 should return 4 x 8 x 17
720 should return 8 x 9 x 10
747 should return 3 x 3 x 83
16,807 should give 49 x 49 x 7
54,432 should return 36 x 36 x 42
74,634 should give 6 x 7 x 1777

Great Classroom Action


Coral Connor’s students created 3D chalk charts to demonstrate their understanding of trig functions:

As a showcase entry we spent several lessons developing the Maths of perspective drawings of representations of comparisons between Australia and the mission countries- income, death rates, life expectancy etc, and finished by creating chalk drawings around the school for all to see.

Malke Rosenfeld assigned the Hundred-Face Challenge – make a face using Cuisenaire Rods that up to 100 – and you should really click through to her gallery of student work:

Some kids just made awesome faces. Me: “Hmmm…that looks like it’s more than 100. What are you going to do?” Kid: “I guess we’ll take off the hair.”

One of my favorite aspects of Bob Lochel’s statistics blogging is how cannily he turns his students into interesting data sets for their own analysis:

Both classes gave me strange looks. But with instructions to answer as best they could, the students played along and provided data. Did you note the subtle differences between the two question sets?

Jonathan Claydon shows us how to cobble together a document camera using nothing more than a top of the line Mac and iPad.

Great Sam Shah Action


Sam Shah’s blog has been a veritable teaching clinic the last two weeks, more than filling his own installment of Great Classroom Action.

With Attacks and Counterattacks, Sam asked his students to define common shapes as best as they could – triangle, polygon, and circle, for instance. They traded definitions with each other and tried to poke holes in those definitions.

When the counter-attacks were presented, it was interesting how the discussions unfolded. The original group often wanted to defend their definition, and state why the counter-attack was incorrect.

Trade the definitions back, strengthen them, and repeat.

Sam created some very useful scaffolds for the very CCSS-y question, “If you have a shape and its image under a rotation, how can you quickly and easily find its center of rotation?”

This is an awesome exercise (inmyhumbleopinion) because it has kids use patty paper, it has them kinesthetically see the rotation, and it gives them immediate feedback on whether the point they thought was the center of rotation truly is the center of rotation. Simple, sweet, forces some thought.

Sam then pulls a move with a Post-It note that is a stunner, simultaneously useful for clarifying the concept of a variable and for finding the sum of recursive fractions:

Ready? READY? Flip. THAT FLIP IS THE COOLEST THING EVER FOR A MATH TEACHER. That flip was the single thing that made me want to blog about this.

Finally, Sam pulls a masterful move in the setup to his students’ realization that all the perpendicular bisectors of a triangle’s side meet in the same point. He has them first find those lines for pentagons (nothing special revealed) and quadrilaterals (nothing special revealed) before asking them to find them for triangles (something very special revealed).

There were gasps, and one student said, and I quite, “MIND BLOWN.”

Great Classroom Action

Classrooms are back in session in the United States, which means lots of classroom action, lots of it great.


The blogger at Simplify With Me posts two interesting activities with dice, one involving blank dice, and the other involving space battles:

Once you have your ships, place one die on the engine, one on the shield, and the other two on each weapon. Which die on which part you ask. That’s the magic of this activity. Each person gets to decide for themselves.

Kathryn Belmonte posts five more uses for dice in her math classroom.

Kate Nowak set the tone for her school year with debate about a set of shapes:

Then I said, okay, so here’s a little secret: what we think of as mathematics is just the result of what everyone has agreed on. We could take our definition of “the same” and run with it. In geometry there’s a special word “congruent” where specific things, that everyone agrees to like a secret pact, are okay and not okay. Then, I erased “the same” and replaced it with “congruent,” and made any adjustments to the definition to make it correct. They had heard the word congruent before, and had the perfectly reasonable middle school understanding that congruent means “same size and shape.” I said that that was great in middle school, but in high school geometry we’re going to be more precise and formal in our language.

Hannah Schuchhardt isn’t happy with how her game of Transformation Telephone worked but I thought the premise was great:

I love this activity because it gives kids a way to practice together as a group and self-assess as they go through. Kids are competitive and want their transformations to work out in the end!

Featured Comments

Mary Dooms:

Kate does a great job connecting all the dots by focusing on the learning target at the end of the lesson. It appears all great classroom action positions the learning target there. Now to convince our administrators.


Christina Tondevold teaches her first three-act math task. There’s a lovely and surprising result at the end, when her students realize that with modeling the calculated answer doesn’t always match the world’s answer exactly.

After they all had taken the 24 bags x 26 in each bag, every kid in that room was so confident and proud that they had gotten the answer of 624, however … the answer is not 624! Why do you think our answers might be off?

John Golden creates and implements a math game around decimal addition called Burger Time with some fifth graders:

Roll five dice to get ingredients for your burger. The numbers correspond to how many mm tall each part is.

Matthew Jones creates a Would You Rather? activity and one of his “defiant” students makes an effective justification of a counterintuitive choice:

He blurted out “I want to paint Choice C.” I told them at the beginning that there was no right/wrong answer, they just had to justify it. I was lucky enough that he thought of the reason why you’d want to paint the larger one. The only reason you’d want to paint the largest wall is because you are paid by the hour. It was really interesting watching him come to that conclusion. And to take pride and ownership in the way that he did.

Jennifer Wilson describes one of NCSM’s “Great Tasks” and shows how she gathers and sorts student work with a TI-NSpire.

Students are asked to create a fair method for cutting any triangular pizza into 3 equal-sized pieces of pizzas. I asked students to work alone for a few minutes before they started sharing what they were doing with others on their team. I walked around and watched.

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