Category: digital storytelling

Total 20 Posts

Hollywood Hates Math

A supercut of moments in cinema and television where characters hate on math.

In fairness, people hate math. Hollywood just turns on the cameras.

BTW. Here’s the behind-the-scenes. I went to SubZin, searched for “math,” crossed off the (few) movies that had anything positive or neutral to say on the subject, queued up all the other movies in NetFlix and ripped those scenes over the course of a few months. Then I wrote down all the lines and started moving them around like an essay. The supercut was easier to edit knowing I had some large passages where kids talked about flunking math or adults referred to their own trouble with math. I was also able to make the movies talk to each other, like the dialog between Jamie Lee Curtis and Megan Fox.

Featured Comments

Jennifer Ouellette:

Great supercut, but there are also Hollywood movies that celebrate math. A Beautiful Mind, Mean Girls, the TV series Numbers, Good Will Hunting… Maybe fodder for another supercut. :)

Barry Smith:

Mathematical genius appears in too many of those pro-math movies. Good Will Hunting, Numbers, Real Genius, Beautiful Mind – everyone watching those movies recognizes that the protagonists are far outside the norm.

Mr. K:

Worse yet, the math geniuses often aren’t even really doing math. They are math like Buck Rogers is science. Numb3rs is a particularly horrific example of this.

Ray O’Brien:

Yup, we are the academic equivalent of dentists.


I disagree with the title. I suggest: Hollywood Hates [School] Math.

2013 Apr 24. Nick Douglas of the Slacktory as a nice rundown of the supercut business.

The Three Acts Of A (Lousy) Mathematical Story

This is one of the most tragic math problems I’ve ever seen. (Click for larger.) Not because it’s awful, though it is, but because the awfulness conceals something amazing. I mean, how great is it that we can drop a rock in a well and the sound of the splash tells us how deep the well is. That’s wizardry!

I find it completely amazing we get to offer that power to our students. If my goal were to conceal that amazingness, though, to ensure my students would be less interested in mathematical wizardry thanks to my efforts, I’m not sure I could do any better than this problem.


  1. The student experiences act one and act two at the same time. Act one is supposed to hit you in the gut; act two in the head. The only reason your textbook tries to do both at the same time is because printing the same problem on two different pages is logistically impossible. Luckily, you aren’t bound by the same constraints.
  2. The problem starts in the second act. And what a second act. Your students have no idea why they’re wading through that long, thickety paragraph outlining the tools, information, and resources (act two) they’ll need to solve the hook (act one) which shows up long after they’ve stopped caring.
  3. And what a hook. Seriously, could someone please explain to me which interest group or political constituency is served by slurring what should have been concise, obscuring what should have been clear, and jargoning what should have been conversational. Seriously, how would a human phrase that hook? Would a human need twenty-six words?
  4. The act one visual is cheap. Again, we’re dealing with cheap clip art here only because of the constraints on an industry that’s taking on water. Don’t go down with that ship. Can you think of a better visual, one that would make students wonder, “Wow. How deep is that?” without you lifting a finger?
  5. The act three payoff is weak. Imagine all the intensity of the final assault on the Death Star in Star Wars. A planet’s survival hinges on an unimaginably long shot. Luke takes that shot as the clock winds down, a shot right at the guts of the Death Star. What if at that moment we cut to some Rebellion functionary announcing in a slow monotone, “The Rebels were successful. They destroyed the Death Star.” That’s what it’s like to read the answer to a visually compelling problem in the back of the book. Show that thing explode.


It turns out that Hollywood occasionally makes math problems for us. Click through and have a look.

  1. Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
  2. The Descent

With Brendan Fraser, you get a fun check on your own answer and an explanation of why his team even cares how deep the cave is. With the Descent team, you get a much deeper cave and a stronger separation between the first and second acts. Both represent massive improvements over our status quo.

To be clear, I’m not saying you can just play act one and two and your students will trot merrily to an answer in act three, deriving that thorny equation for projectile motion all on their own while stopping periodically to smell the constructivism flowers. I’m not saying that. This problem is tricky and will likely require lots of help on your part. What I’m saying for sure is that it makes no sense to offer that mountainous paragraph of helpful text without your students knowing (to say nothing of caring) why you’re offering it.


Which Is The Better First Act?

Here are two very similar #anyqs entries from Dan and Nancy – two teachers I worked with in Grand Forks, ND. I asked my readers to decide which was the better first act and I disagreed with most of them.


Dan’s features a spigot leaking into a bucket. It’s just leaking. Drip drip drip drip drip.


Nancy’s features a faucet leaking into a measuring cup. It’s just leaking. Drip drip drip drip drip. But Nancy also includes a timer on her iPhone. And at the end of 39 seconds she draws the measuring cup close to the camera so you can see how many ounces have leaked out so far.

Why Dan Has Told The Better Mathematical Story

The first act of a good story introduces a conflict. It does very little to solve it. Think of the shark in Jaws munching on the lady swimmer. At that point, we have no idea what tools, resources, and information will be brought to bear on the task of killing the shark. We only know we want it dead.

The first act of a good story asks very little of the viewer’s intellect. It appeals, instead, to the gut. The viewer of Nancy’s first act would ideally think, “My word. How much water is that faucet going to waste?” Instead, because Nancy has already foregrounded the tools, resources, and information that belong in the second act of the story (just several minutes later in the lesson!) the viewer thinks, “Oh. This is a math problem, isn’t it?”

We need to curb our natural tendency as math teachers to burn up interesting problems on an altar to our math gods. In this case, all that means is you wait until after your students have formulated a question that interests them before offering them tools, resources, and information to solve it.

BTW: Picky? Absolutely. But where’s the fun in this job if not in negotiating the details. For whatever it’s worth, if you called me out for featuring timers prominently in the first acts of my own stories (as Bowen Kerins did recently) you’d be right on. The timers came from a position of insecurity that no one’s going to wonder “how long?” if I don’t explicitly call out time in the first act. That’s done now.

The Three Acts Of A Mathematical Story

2016 Aug 6. Here is video of this task structure implemented with elementary students.

2013 May 14. Here’s a brief series on how to teach with three-act math tasks. It includes video.

2013 Apr 12. I’ve been working this blog post into curriculum ideas for a couple years now. They’re all available here.

Storytelling gives us a framework for certain mathematical tasks that is both prescriptive enough to be useful and flexible enough to be usable. Many stories divide into three acts, each of which maps neatly onto these mathematical tasks.

Act One

Introduce the central conflict of your story/task clearly, visually, viscerally, using as few words as possible.

With Jaws your first act looks something like this:

The visual is clear. The camera is in focus. It isn’t bobbing around so much that you can’t get your bearings on the scene. There aren’t any words. And it’s visceral. It strikes you right in the terror bone.

With math, your first act looks something like this:

The visual is clear. The camera is locked to a tripod and focused. No words are necessary. I’m not saying anyone is going to shell out ten dollars on date night to do this math problem but you have a visceral reaction to the image. It strikes you right in the curiosity bone.

Leave no one out of your first act. Your first act should impose as few demands on the students as possible – either of language or of math. It should ask for little and offer a lot. This, incidentally, is as far as the #anyqs challenge takes us.

Act Two

The protagonist/student overcomes obstacles, looks for resources, and develops new tools.

Before he resolves his largest conflict, Luke Skywalker resolves a lot of smaller ones – find a pilot, find a ship, find the princess, get the Death Star plans back to the Rebellion, etc. He builds a team. He develops new skills.

So it is with your second act. What resources will your students need before they can resolve their conflict? The height of the basketball hoop? The distance to the three-point line? The diameter of a basketball?

What tools do they have already? What tools can you help them develop? They’ll need quadratics, for instance. Help them with that.

Act Three

Resolve the conflict and set up a sequel/extension.

The third act pays off on the hard work of act two and the motivation of act one. Here’s act three of Star Wars.

That’s a resolution right there. Imagine, though, that Luke fired his last shot and instead of watching the Death Star explode, we cut to a scene inside the Rebellion control room. No explosion. Just one of the commanders explaining that “the mission was a success.”

That what it’s like for students to encounter the resolution of their conflict in the back of the teacher’s edition of the textbook.

If we’ve successfully motivated our students in the first act, the payoff in the third act needs to meet their expectations. Something like this:

Now, remember Vader spinning off into the distance, hurtling off to set the stage for The Empire Strikes Back. You need to be Vader. Make sure you have extension problems (sequels, right?) ready for students as they finish.


Many math teachers take act two as their job description. Hit the board, offer students three worked examples and twenty practice problems. As the ALEKS algorithm gets better and Bill Gates throws more gold bricks at Sal Khan and more people flip their classrooms, though, it’s clear to me that the second act isn’t our job anymore. Not the biggest part of it, anyway. You are only one of many people your students can access as they look for resources and tools. Going forward, the value you bring to your math classroom increasingly will be tied up in the first and third acts of mathematical storytelling, your ability to motivate the second act and then pay off on that hard work.


  1. I gave this post a try a year ago.
  2. Also, Breedeen Murray has a lot of useful things to say about storytelling, though I can’t endorse her enthusiasm for “confusion.”

2011 Dec 26: The Three Acts of a (Lousy) Mathematical Story is also on the syllabus.