Math = aspirin

I literally got out of my education class 10 minutes ago and went directly to the first computer I could find. We had such a great discussion in class, and I just had to share it with someone (even if it’s just a computer).

Dan Meyer gave a guest lecture via Skype about ideas on how to motivate students to enjoy math. No matter how in love a teacher is with math, the reality is that many students just don’t like math. Teachers often try to make math more interesting to students by showing its “real-life applications.” However, simply asking students to solve word problems about bridges and planet orbits (real life!) doesn’t actually make students enjoy math more.

The problem, Meyer says, is that teachers are not focusing enough on verbs. Instead of changing the words in word problems, Meyer challenges teachers to change how material is delivered.

Meyer showed us a clip from a car commercial where a whole bunch of Girl Scout cookie boxes were being loaded into the truck of a car. He then asked us to estimate how many boxes were loaded into the car. All of us wrote down estimates, and the range of our answers was quite large. Meyer gave us some more information about the dimensions of the car trunk and the cookie boxes and asked us to come up with more accurate guesses. The range of our answers after this step was much smaller. By this time, we all just wanted to know what the actual answer was, which he eventually gave us. This exercise was effective for a variety of reasons. For one, there were many more verbs involved besides the typical “remember” and “repeat.” Students were estimating, analyzing, discussing, and sanity checking their answers. The whole process of introducing the problem using a video and going through several iterations of answers engaged the class.

Meyer likes to compare mathematics to aspirin. His job as a math teacher is to figure out what will cause the students to need aspirin. In other words, he wants to set up scenarios that will make students understand better why math is used to solve their problems. Great mathematicians from way back when didn’t come up with math with the intention of creating pain for children thousands of years later. Rather, they came up with the field of math to make their lives easier.

Meyer showed our class a bunch of black dots scattered throughout the screen. He asked student A to choose a point on the screen and communicate to student B which point he had chosen. It was supposed to be one-way communication, so student B was not allowed to speak. It took several tries before student B was able to identify student A’s point. Student A and student B then switched roles, except this time the black dots were all labelled with letters (e.g. A, B, C, etc.). Student A was able to identify student B’s point immediately once the points were labelled. The source of pain in this exercise was identifying points, and the aspirin that to treat that pain was labelling points with letters.

To be honest, I’ve been having some doubts lately about becoming a schoolteacher because I realized that I’ve only had experience teaching students who were already excited about the topic I was teaching. Classroom observations this semester have opened my eyes to difficulties that accompany teaching students who aren’t interested in the given subject. However, Meyer’s master class today got me really excited about possible ways to reach those students by showing them how math can solve their problems.

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