Month: May 2011

Total 12 Posts

Dissents Of The Day: Danielson, Pickford, Scammell

Christopher Danielson:

Your quest for the perfect image that will get 100% of viewers on board with the same mathematical question may be a bit quixotic …

Avery Pickford:

In [my ideal] world, I imagine spending a greater amount of time talking about the aesthetics of what makes for an interesting math problem and much less time cajoling students to ask the “right” question.

John Scammell

It’s unfortunate that we are so curriculum driven that we have to trick them into inventing the question we want them to come up with.

Here’s the thing: nobody watches Jaws and feels cajoled into wondering the question, “Won’t anybody stop that shark?!” No one watches Star Wars and feels tricked into wondering, “Will the rebels defeat the Galactic Empire?!” Those questions are irresistible, not on account of any deception on the part of the cast or crew, but because the cast and crew evoked the central conflict of their story skillfully.

This isn’t to say those questions are irresistible to everybody. Some people lack the cultural prerequisites to care about Star Wars. Some people possess the prerequisites and simply don’t care. Not everyone is interested in every movie, however skillfully it creates a narrative.

The point of the #anyqs challenge is to evoke a perplexing situation so skillfully that the majority of your students will wonder the same question (whatever that is) and the rest of the class won’t find that question unnatural or uninteresting, even if it wasn’t the first question that struck them.


I was working with Wisconsin’s math teachers this afternoon, making the case that good storytelling is a first cousin to good math instruction. I challenged them at the end:

Give yourself one photo or one minute of video to tell a mathematical story so perplexing that all of your students will want to know the ending, without you saying a word or lifting a finger.

I’m talking about photos and video that provoke a vast majority of your class to wonder the same question without any explicit prompting. For instance, minutes before the presentation began, I tweeted:

Dear Twitter: what’s the first question that comes to mind? #anyqs

[anyq] Stacking Dolls from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

In the last minutes of my presentation – nervous as hell – I showed the group my Twitter feed. Here’s what we saw:

This kind of user feedback is invaluable. The results are mixed. There is a degree of consensus around one question but I still may head back to the drawing board to reshoot the problem in a way that makes “How many are there?” the most natural, perplexing question to ask.

So I’m pitching the same challenge to you. I have my hawk eyes on the #anyqs hashtag and I can promise you’ll get a question from me, at the very least.


You know which group of students seriously doesn’t hate it when you pose intriguing mathematical questions without words? English language learners. I know it’s some kind of cliché to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but seriously: the more scene-setting you can embed in a photo or video the better for everybody.


Consider how bizarre the #anyqs challenge would appear to your textbook’s publisher. They work in a world where it’s totally normal to take some cheap clip art or stock photography and ask a question about it that would occur naturally to nobody else in the world. I’m challenging you to flip every aspect of that around.

2011 Dec 01. Essential follow-up reading. Don’t try to get your students to guess the question in your head.