Fires in the Mind

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.


5 Responses to “Just life . . . but solved as word problems”

  1. Malyn says:

    I have recently posted along these lines, i.e. Maths is not = calculating, inspired by Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk Stop teaching calculating – start teaching math, an engaging insight into how maths education can be. In my experience, in order to engage students, Maths needs to be taught in context, preferably real-life but even a virtual/fantastical world scenario can work.

    I also want to add that some kids struggle de-coding word problems and translating it into something mathematical. I’ve devised a mnemonic (GGSC) for this which includes (starts even) with what has been suggested in the video, i.e. start with the given. Here’s a link to my post on GGSC to help decode word problems.

    Initiatives such as documented in your video, Wolfram’s as well as work by Dan Meyer and those who follow him (WCYDWT) gives me hope that maths education will continue to be relevant, albeit and perhaps necessarily, changed.

  2. Jason Buell says:

    I think we miss out most with not letting kids just play with math. In science classes, we allow kids to experiment and test out ideas. In math it’s often very lockstep and you are punished for not arriving at the single correct answer in the exact method that was taught.

  3. Leah says:

    Students are begging for this type of interaction–they just don’t realize it because they have been molded into a certain “type” of student. They think Math class is taking notes, then reheashing and reprocessing what was given to them in those notes. They don’t even know that a whole other world is out there! A world that uses (actually USES) Math to do something other than move numbers around on paper.

    I started a plane geometry unit today. These units typically start with front-loading vocabulary (plane, point, ray, segment…) so that students will know how to interpret and read the crazy diagrams they are about to encounter. I gave students a vocabulary list, then we looked at photos of ballet and breakdancers, art by Picasso, Kandinsky and Miro, and famous buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon. We looked for points, lines, planes, rays and angles in the structures of the buildings and the poses of the dancers. We watched clips from the modern ballet show “Movin’ Out” and from classics like “Swan Lake.”

    They had no idea it was even there! Dancers are using geometry? How is it possible? We must provide these avenues to help students see this. It’s how to move forward–it’s how to make those diagrams in the book mean something other than “stuff for Friday’s quiz.”

  4. I love Leah’s geometry unit! Take a look too at “Calculicious,” a brilliant high school math unit devised in 2009 by High Tech High art teacher Jeff Robin and math/physics teacher Andrew Gloag. On my wall I have one girl’s painting inspired by Degas — she marks the angles of the dancers’ legs, their skirts, even explains the “vanishing point” of parallel lines. Page through the book for delight and inspiration — both teachers have put their unit plans online. Sure makes calculus look delicious!


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