Dissent Of The Day: H. Wells Wulsin

H. Wells Wulsin:

I recognize that I am probably not going to persuade you (or most of your readers) on this point. But these kinds of strategies have never been tried before in a math software package, and if they do work, then the developers stand to make a lot of money, and it could help a lot of students. I can’t be sure how effective these strategies would be until they’re tried, but I have a lot of reasons (which I tried to explain in the article) to think that they have the potential to make a big difference. That’s why I’d like to see a publisher or software company invest a few million dollars to produce a really high-quality software product.

I respond in the comments.

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. After reading the article and the comments I am getting a sense that this entire debate stems from a discrepancy in interpretations (or perhaps I’ve just interpreted the article differently than everyone else).

    This is the single summary that I took away from the article:

    When designing digital mathematics curriculum, along with providing authentic, thought-provoking, and engaging materials (with a strong narrative of course), it would probably be beneficial to make the video high-quality and connect to students interests (perhaps by showing appealing faces and/or holding students attention via interesting people with magnetic personalities).

    Take the Trap-Jaw Ants as an example. The mathematics is there (I’ll choose Newton’s Laws of Motion, though there are other possibilities), the problem begs a number of questions to be answered, and depending on how the problem is structured, process could have a clear beginning, middle, and end. But what makes the video different from watching the recoil of a mini pen cannon? It’s the professional quality: the artsy black and white video, the super slow motion, the crazy sound effects of ants whooshing through the air. And it’s freakin’ flying ants. If that’s not cool and interesting, I don’t know what is.

    If Wulsin’s argument is that authentic mathematics should be supplemented by high quality video of famous people using corny one-liners then I have a bone to pick; but if the idea is that authentic mathematics can be made more accessible by using higher quality video of concepts which relate to general student interest, then I’m all for it.

  2. Maybe these strategies have “never been tried before in a math software package,” but the idea of making learning cool has certainly been tried in the field of education.

    The year was 1998. In health class, we watched a video of the 1980s Lakers “rapping” about not doing drugs. Their shorts were very short and I am quite grateful they were not filmed in HD.

    One year later, my econ class watched a video featuring Reggie Jackson showing the usefulness of economics through baseball. However, many were confused about who he was, since he had not played the game in more than a decade. Reggie was pretty distracting from the underlying content.

    As soon as you go down this route, you’re constantly rewriting, recasting, and re-filming these videos. And this doesn’t even address whether or not the videos will actually help students learn.

  3. So what math concept will they cover on Jersey Shore? Sorry not a productive comment, but I think school is a great place to escape pop culture. America is in trouble if we equate success with popularity and your bank account. Definitely feel I am successful as a teacher. Not very popular and not rich. I hope my next banker learned how to equate interest from someone other than Danica Patrick. Sorry Danica. I love you . . . you’re a great racer.

  4. Andrew Shauver

    April 20, 2011 - 6:21 am -

    An additional question that I have goes all the way back to the thesis statement of the article: “Learning mathematics, like learning to play the violin, works best with immediate feedback.”

    I would like to see a bit more support for this statement. I suppose that it seems intuitive to a point, but does it conflict with the basic need for patient, persistent problem-solving? How do you develop patience and persistence in a math classroom that thrives on immediacy?

  5. I’m gonna have to stick up for Mr. Wulsin on this one. The thing that made me happiest in my student teaching was having access to Accelerated Math, so my students could get instant feedback, compared with my over-the-weekend-at-best grading. I also remember using some tutoring software (in ESL, not Math). It was completely low quality. It looked like the whole graphical interface was made in paint. It offended my 21st century sensibilities. Not that I disagree with the idea of rich problems within a narrative, but there is definite value in some more diverse and high quality mathematics tools. For example, maybe a choose your own adventure program dependant on clicker responses could have a combination of the elements everyone seems to be rooting for: narrative, instant feedback, quality video, paid actors, engaging subject matter. There are a lot of directions this could go. Could you build a whole curriculum out of this? Maybe not, but I would consider using something like that as a supplement.

  6. Having worked in the educational software industry for over a decade, I have to disagree that math software has “never been done before”. There are many examples in the early days of software that you can point to for interesting exploratory math. However, those days are over. Two reasons: school demands and economics.

    1. Schools demand that publishers align all curricular software to standards. That means that publishers give them what they ask for – boring software that drills on the basic facts and provides assessment reports that match standards.

    2. Most video games these days START at a $5M development budget. There are only about 100,000 schools in the US. Let’s say that 10% of them spent $50 for a game. Your expected sales revenue would only be $500,000. And 10% is a HUGE market share. Expecting a company to spend “a few million” on game development where the best you can do is take in $500,000 doesn’t make sense.

    I remember when Halo (I think Halo 3) came out and sold 4 million copies the first week. There are only 4 million teachers in the US. So why would any company spend R&D time and money to reach a tiny market segment? Plus one that has a wide range of needs (12 grades, all subject areas, different standards.)

    If there were millions to be made in educational software development, believe me, people would be trying.

    The only way to make money is the way the big publishers do it – sell giant systems for tens of thousands of dollars that correlate to standards and produce assessment reports that make superintendents happy.

  7. I think Sylvia is on the mark!

    I personally have been not enthused by the various mathematical software that I have reviewed. This year I have been piloting various “math websites.” In the class with students who most persistantly resist learning algebra, they seemed pretty much bored with much of the technology. I have used catchupmath.com for practice, and it’s a little better than drill and kill, but the students don’t really want to do math problems on the computer if they don’t want to do them IRL.
    When I mentioned to one student about making a powerpoint, they said, “I hate making powerpoints.” Now, of course, this is out of the mouth of adolescents…so the excitement level will always be affected by their age.

    The one technology tool (not software) that has been most engaging this year is my interwrite panel (which an ipad can also do). What I write on my panel writes directly on any projection. Kids can also use the panel to write out problems.

    This is why I have been enjoying this blog so much (thanks, Dan!) because it is leading me to the path to find more ways to connect to the kids with math that connects to the real life. I am in the pre-contemplative stage of integrating all of these great ideas in my practice.

  8. timstudiesmath

    April 21, 2011 - 4:53 am -

    What could you do with Sylvia’s numbers? She counts the number of entire schools, but only allows one teacher per school to decide whether to purchase software. Sounds like a math problem to me.

  9. If you want to talk about making math interesting, topical, relevant, etc, I’m all on board. I think if you simply have folks like Dan creating materials and bringing their passion for the subject and for learning the subject you have at least some improvement over the norm.

    If you want to talk about making something COOL, however, I’ll take a pass. In my 40 years I can say there’s been one constant: people and organizations that try to MAKE something cool inevitably fail. What is cool now is different than when I was a teen but the awkwardness of things failing to be cool is just as unpleasant as it ever was.

    Kids may not yet have figured out that getting someone cool to hang out with them won’t make them cool but they can see right through our efforts to make a subject cool just by involving someone famous.