What Won’t Work: Harvard’s Movie Math

Harvard’s Oliver Knill extracts clips from movies that evoke math. To whomever first tipped me to this site last year and for the dozen recommendations I have received since, thanks, but I have no idea what to do with it. There is value here, certainly, but rarely is it of the WCYDWT? variety, which has kids actually getting dirty with math.

Basically, this is mathematical pornography, where handsome people in movies use the same math I’ve been telling you kids that people in the real world use all the time.

For example, check out the Straw Dogs clip in which a blackboard with some astrophysical equations appears! Or the time that Doc Brown uses the term “googolplex” in Back to the Future III! Even Matt Damon enjoys solving linear equations!

Like I said, there is value here, I’m sure, but I’m looking for fruit on higher branches. Because every single one of those clips begs the question:

What do the students do with it?

If you can’t build an interesting activity out of the a/v material, something to challenge and perplex your students over a sustained stretch, I have little use for it. The thesis of both this post and the last is that we have to make the really useful stuff ourselves.

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. Donna and Fred Roberts took the movie clips a step further a couple of years ago when they put together the Math and the Movies site here: http://www.mathbits.com/MathBits/MathMovies/ResourceList.htm . Each of the clips is accompanied by a worksheet that at least does explore the math featured in the clip. Unfortunately I think the problem with many of these worksheets is the same as the problem with many textbooks – not enough thinking involved.

    I have used these movie clip sites as a jumping off point similar to the what can you do with this series. My favorite is the Abbott and Costello clip from In the Navy that I had no trouble turning into a 1+ hour discussion and investigation of place value for some 8th graders.

    Movie clips can have the same great effects as your pictures, but the key is to hook the students in with the clips and then roll the kids into taking a deeper look into whats going on behind the scenes.

  2. Dan,

    Your WCYDWT? series is fantastic.

    Do you know of other teachers that have followed your lead on this by asking similar questions of their readers in subjects other than math?

  3. Oh PS Aaron, that’s a much better link than the one that inspired this post and I think your criticism (that these still don’t ask much of students) is right on the money.

  4. The classic “In the Navy” and Ma and Pa Kettle clips could be useful to explore place value. I would be interested in whether students could create similar spurious arguments with different numbers.