[Fake World] Math Needs A Better Product, Not More Commercials

There’s a contest called Math-O-Vision, which your students should enter. Here’s the premise:

The Neukom Institute for Computational Science, at Dartmouth College, is offering prizes for high school students who create 4-minute movies that show the world of equations we live in. In 240 seconds, using animation, story-telling, humor, or anything you can think of, show us what you see: the patterns, the abstractions, the patterns within the abstractions.

The contest doesn’t articulate its goal — why should we ask students to participate? — but we can fill in that blank with plenty of good ones:

  • It promotes creative expression.
  • It marries math and the arts.
  • It allows students who like math to express what they like about math.
  • It has a $4,000 grand prize.

What the contest won’t do is convince people who don’t like math to like math. Here’s why.

I could divide my students into three rough categories. Here’s how each one would react to last year’s grand-prize winner.

The students who like math in every one of its flavors — pure, applied, whatever.

They’ll enjoy making these videos and they’ll enjoy watching these videos. But these students aren’t any concern of ours right here.

The students who dislike math but wish they liked math.

They’ll find themselves enticed by these videos. Seeing shots like this will re-activate their sense that math has some powerful and exhilarating role to play in the world around them.


But then they’ll return to the classroom where they’re assigned real-world tasks like this:


And the difference couldn’t be more stark. The promise of “real-world math” has gone unrealized. What seemed powerful and exhilarating and full of potential in the video is in reality debilitating and tedious

The students who dislike math, who think math dislikes them, and who want nothing to do with math.

These videos will be ineffective. Even counter-productive. Hearing the grand prize-winner say, “Mathematics. It’s everywhere,” won’t entice or engage these students. It’ll terrify them. Like telling someone who hates clowns, “Clowns. They’re everywhere.” Or showing videos of skydiving and bungee jumping to someone who’s terrified of heights.

More than they need “real-world” mathematical experiences (like the debilitating and tedious volleyball task above) these students need math to make them feel powerful and exhilarated and full of potential.

These videos are effectively commercials for math. Commercials are useful if someone is in the market for the product. They’re useless if someone already has the product and has found it defective, which describes how many of our students feel about math right now.

The pursuit of real world math can lead to lots of positive outcome but one outcome it leads to is effective commercials for a defective product. We need fewer commercials. We need a better product.

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. Really interesting. Thinking about math as a product prompts two questions:

    Products are designed to fit a market. What’s the market (in the eyes of students) the current math curriculum was designed to serve?

    Why doesn’t the math curriculum effectively address a large segment of that market anymore?

    Did the current math curriculum used to make people feel exhilarated and powerful? What changed?

  2. I whole heartedly agree. We need a better product. I’m a first year teacher (4 weeks to the end of year 1)…and I have worked hard to develop curriculum that is somewhat real world (I know that there are several things that need to be reworked for next year but I’m learning). Unfortunately the textbook that has been in use at my school has been set in stone for several years (which is silly because it is marketed as “Australian Curriculum” but was written before the maths curriculum was finalised). It also has A LOT of dodgy “real world” problems. But what’s worse than a problem like the volleyball problem above? A problem like the volleyball problem but with multiple choice options for answers so you can take a stab with no actual mathematics in theory…and that is a significant portion of our current textbooks. So when I got these kids at the beginning of the year they were unwilling to think because they were so used to being able to guess the answer. That is a terrible product.

    Which is why I stopped using our textbook anywhere near as much as anyone else. I discovered the 3 act math resource and have adapted that into my classes. Such as super bear. My kids loved that and they discovered so many ways to solve it, such as making a graph and finding the rule to determine how many gummy bears make one super bear. And I have converted a few of my colleagues to the tasks which is a positive.

  3. Thanks Dan for poiting out the problem that it is the “product” itself. We try to teach mathematics as easy as possible, and explain ALL the details about each subject, which has turned out to be very appealing and effective for students.

    Unfortunately, we are not famous in English speaking countries as our product (mathematics videos with new teaching techniques) is in German. Watch one of our free videos to get an idea why we are different: http://www.echteinfach.tv/mathe-videos (I recommend the “Logarithmus” video G23).


  4. I don’t think we need a better product. The product has undergone millennia of revision and refinement, and it has evolved into both the world’s most immense playground and most effective toolbox.

    I’d submit that it’s the product is not the problem, it’s the packaging and distribution channels. Commercials are terribly impersonal. They are designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, and anything so designed loses something else in the process. Commercials are there, and then they’re gone. They can’t compare to teachers who a) take the time to develop relationships with students, b) show them they care about their learning, and c) are not traveling salespeople for whom “math” is just the latest product they’ve been asked to hawk, but people who teach math because they can’t NOT teach it. Teachers who believe in their hearts that learning mathematics will help their students become fuller human beings, and even bring them joy.

  5. Hearing the grand prize-winner say, “Mathematics. It’s everywhere,” won’t entice or engage these students. It’ll terrify them. Like telling someone who hates clowns, “Clowns. They’re everywhere.”

    I hereby declare this Blog Quote of the Year 2013.

  6. OK, in all seriousness, I tried this with my students. None of them were “turned off math” but I don’t think any opinions changed either. Main feedback was “he drives a minivan?”

  7. I am kind of terrified of what sorts of curricula the publishers would come up with if we made “complex problem solving” one of the core subjects.

    I have found people (even those terrified of math) to be engaged with it when it comes up in outside of the classroom contexts.

    It’s when a test is the primary motivation for learning something that everything goes to hell.

  8. Once again, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with you, Dan.

    For many students there is a sort of terror, a deer-in-the-headlights experience when someone asks them to do math. As you say, telling them that “math is everywhere” is a terrifying proposition.