A Sports Illustrated editor emailed me last week:
I’d like to write a column re: how sports could be an effective tool to teach probability/fractions/ even behavioral economics to kids. Wonder if you have thoughts here….
My response, which will hopefully serve to illustrate my last post:
I tend to side with Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist who wrote in his book Why Students Don’t Like School, “Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work.” That’s because, with math, there are contexts like sports or shopping but then there’s the work students do in those contexts. The boredom of the work often overwhelms the interest of the context.
To give you an example, I could have my students take the NBA’s efficiency formula and calculate it for their five favorite players. But calculating — putting numbers into a formula and then working out the arithmetic — is boring work. Important but boring. The interesting work is in coming up with the formula, in asking ourselves, “If you had to take all the available stats out there, what would your formula use? Points? Steals? Turnovers? Playing time? Shoe size? How will you assemble those in a formula?” Realizing you need to subtract turnovers from points instead of adding them is the interesting work. Actually doing the subtraction isn’t all that interesting.
So using sports as a context for math could surely increase student interest in math but only if the work they’re doing in that context is interesting also.
After my AP stats exam, I had my students come up with their own project to program into their TI-83 calculators. The only one I remember is the student who did what you suggest — some kind of sports formula for ranking. I remember it because he was so into it, and his classmates got into it, too, but I hardly knew what they were talking about.
He had good enough explanations for everything he put into the formula, and he ranked some well known players by his formula and everyone agreed with it. But it was building the formula that hooked him, and then he had his calculator crank out the numbers.