What Won’t Work: FlickrCC

What Can You Do With This? is the most fun I’ve had this school year. I could do week after week of times table review if my students and I were allowed just thirty minutes per week to sharpen our minds with mathematically rich multimediaIf you’re the sort who sees potential in these blog things for professional development then the fact that I developed this classroom fixture organically, spasmodically, like a wobbly baby giraffe, here on this blog, in full public view with full public input, might be a useful data point..

I have received two suggestions recently I wanted to address, two suggestions that would put us off a useful trail and into the bramble. Here is one.

FlickrCC Won’t Work

Scanning Creative Commons-licensed photography databases for math media simply isn’t a scalable solution. These media must be unaffected. The student must lift the heavy weights. The student must decide for herself what is important about an image, audio sample, or video. Most photographers, meanwhile, are very interested in artistic expression, in affectation, in imposing their own point of view on a scene, rather than stripping the scene of their point of view entirely, which is essential for classroom work. So instead of something unaffected, and artistically value-neutral like this:

You get expression like this:

… with the camera positioned at an artistically interesting but academically unhelpful angle. You can’t model a parabola onto this. You can’t model a circle onto this. The photographer was (naturally) unconcerned with measuring the scene, which rules out basic photogrammetry. It begs the question, “who shot this?” rather than an interesting question about the parabola itself.

This is a generalization, true, but a useful one. You can’t find the really effective WCYDWT? media. You can derive surface-scratchers like “what shapes do you see here?” from Creative Commons-licensed Flickr media but if you’re looking to propel a meaningful discussion or a rigorous activity, you have to make it yourself.

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


  1. Dan,

    Though the media you want has its own perspective, it has a perspective conducive to mathematical analysis. I’d say that the second image is a good one because its not optimal. You don’t want to start with it, but working up to it would be a challenge.

    I guess I just don’t follow your reasoning, though I have enjoyed, immensely, your posts on digital media and mathematics.



  2. Counterpoint: Searching in the Flickr Creative Commons pool for high-value tags, such as squaredcircle.

    In general though, I agree that it’s not scalable. However, that might not matter because it’s gotten so cheap and easy to make your own really great digital images.

    The hard part, as always, is editing.

  3. Dan – your point about taking out the extra noise from classroom media is well noted, and this fits into your overall design approach. But for me, teaching the Humanities, I often like the added aesthetics that I find on FlickrCC. Interpreting texts of all kinds is in the English curricular remit. And for History, I can’t get a shot of the Roman Colosseum on my own.

    However, this is just my impression, and it is not necessarily based on as much tinkering and trial and error as what you have done. You have a baby giraffe, but the media in my classroom feels more like a wild monkey – sometimes I can find pretty awesome stuff online, but other times my hand gets bitten or poo is thrown into my hair.

    (I am somewhat skeptical of the analogy above. I really like writing about monkeys.)

  4. FlickrCC isn’t per se without merit. Like Jeff mentions, it’s nice that people are out there taking CC-licensed photos of interesting places our kids should see, even if they can’t travel there.

    I’ll ask you this question though, particularly w/r/t a high school math class:

    What can the kids do with those images?

    If we’re just trying to illustrate a concept like squaring the circle or a location like the Colosseum, then fine. But kids can’t do anything with those like they can with an unaffected image seeded with a visceral question, etc., etc.

    What can they do but gawp, point out the circle, the square, and the Colosseum? What can they do with that satellite I posted except point at the satellite?

  5. Your last comment punctures a lot of media use in the classroom. Still, and I think you have made this point yourself, the kids are used to being surrounded by great graphics. The odd picture simply as illustration may have its place, which is what I think Jeff is saying.

    Oh, and your willingness to deveop this “organically, spasmodically, like a wobbly baby giraffe, here on this blog, in full public view with full public input” is a great thing. Your blog has meant a lot to me lately. Please keep it up.

  6. Dan – what can they do but gawp? Well if you put up two images side by side they can compare. From the same site or different ones. And middle schoolers are always challenged (in a good way, not a silly way) by a caption contest.

    But point made – most of what I use flickrCC for is simply so I can get clipart out of my powerpoints, so we can take virtual journeys together. And for maths, I think you are spot on. You don’t need fancy shots, all you need is the right subject material and framing.

  7. Dan
    Do you think there is a limited number of mathematical concepts and/or skills that can be provoked by using images? Or do you feel that one can actully drive a curriculum with them?

  8. They are limited. I haven’t found anything to motivate factoring, for instance. Which isn’t to say I won’t one day. Or that we won’t one day. But our weekly sojourns into mathematical media make factoring much much easier.

  9. I’ll keep looking if you do. Polynomial fractions are killing me. I can’t even think of a real life application to those, much less some sort of visual that will spark a discussion. I suppose the alternative could be to create some sort of a/v that models the situation we want to teach like linear systems. (ie. student A looking over her cell phone bill and reads off # text messages vs. cost over the course of a few months; student B with different provider does the same and then a discussion ensues regarding whose plan is better) A homemade video would beat the heck out of some of the word problems I have read dealing with these situations.

    As for the digressions making the actual instruction easier: I completely agree. I find that even if I use Lateral Thinking puzzles as a warmup, the kids practice questioning techniques and they really have to think outside of the box. I am finding that even my “too cool for school” kids will kick in a question and that often translates into asking a thoughtful question about math down the road.

  10. @David, I don’t know if this gets you all the way, but folks have been working with binomial and trinomial cube manipulatives in Montesorri pre-school for years. This would at least get you a concrete visual model, but still no real world app?

    Some have argued about how effective it is later ( example). Wonder what you could do with those in middle or high school.

  11. @Dan, I get your point for your lesson, and what you’re doing, BUT…I still find it a good resource for visual images.
    If your point is you have to have more than flickr CC, I think you are dead on. I would give you different reasons for this being so with subjects like social studies, and English.

    I love my flickr CC, but it’s not my only source. I snap pics, I use some other sources (like Time/Life on Google, Wikipedia, etc). What gets me is some folks tout flickr CC as the ONLY source.

    My argument lately is that sometimes you have to make “fair use” of copyrighted images, but that’s another ball o’ wax.

  12. My argument lately is that sometimes you have to make “fair use” of copyrighted images, but that’s another ball o’ wax.

    Ain’t that the truth.

  13. @Alice
    Thanks for the heads up. I like the manipulative idea but, I am really struggling with the application. California is one of the only states with A rated math standards, yet we have the kids doing something with no real life application. Math should help explain reality…we shouldn’t have to struggle with finding a reality to explain the math.

  14. @david: IF you find a way to use them, can you share? I’d be interested. If you find a solution, that would be a nifty idea too!