Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why We Should Be Telling Stories in Math Class

     Stories are what we live for, we tell them, we share them, we listen to them, and we dream them.  Man is hardwired for stories.  Stories help us build and make meaning of what is going on around us.  As educators doesn't it make sense that we should be telling stories in our classroom? 

Not sold on the idea yet?  Let’s see what the Harvard Business Review says about storytelling.
In our information-saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all,” he says. But stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others. And fortunately, everyone has the ability to become a better storyteller. We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story,” says Jonah Sachs, CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Winning the Story Wars

      Good marketers know this.  They have only a minute or so (and often less) to tell a story that we can emotionally connect to so we will buy their product.  Just look at the commotion the Super bowl commercials cause:  Who couldn’t connect to the little boy dressed as Darth Vader and his obliging dad who helps him use his powers, or the puppy that has that special relationship with a horse?

So how can we apply this to the math class?  Well for a start, we could tell some “hi-stories” of the mathematicians who developed the calculations we use today. Or how some of the great problems of the world have been solved using mathematics.  Here is a great link from Math Forum called “The history of mathematics through solving some of the greatest problems that have inspired mathematicians through the ages.”

There is also a short TED Talk about "why is x the symbol for unknown?", instead of maybe y or m or p.

When it comes to adding stories into the classroom, I say “bring it on”.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Making Connections

Image result for making connections

This post can apply to any subject and is one that I think is one of the most important aspects of what can separate a good teacher from a great teacher. Most teachers can teach a good lesson with the proper materials and resources, but not all can make that connection with the students. If we can better understand out students we will be able to better assess what is holding them back and what is pushing them forward. In many cases the cause of many students problems in the classroom do not actually start in the classroom they start at home. "Children's experiences at home can have a direct impact on their performance at school, research at Cardiff University, UK has found. Recent findings from the South Wales Family Study suggest that the quality of relations between parents not only affects children's long-term emotional and behavioral development but also affects their long-term academic achievement." If the proper support is not provided at home or if negative reinforcement is going on it can hamper the students outlook on school. Getting to know your student and making meaningful connections with these students can help give them the necessary support needed to succeed and feel accomplished.

Students need to know you care and are not their to fail them and judge them, the way to do this is to take interest in the student's lives inside school and outside, never giving up on the student (many students will try to push you away because that is what they are use to but when you stick by them it builds trust) and use the interests of the students to teach math or any subject. Respect the students and they will respect you, as teachers we often forget that we need to earn the respect and this take patients, when that respect is built and they know you are their for them more then just to mark their work and teach lesson's they will want to perform for you, they will not want to disappoint you, they will put in the extra effort, they will ask for help, they will want to succeed and with out that want there is no chance. Ways to start this process - Interview your students, give assignments that allow students to share experiences, encourage classroom discussion, attend your students school activities.

Many students will succeed whether you make that connection with them or not but their are many out there and it seems more and more every year that need that connection to succeed at their full potential. Lets do our job and be more then presenters, lets be teachers, make those connections, make a difference.

Making Math Practical

Math is a huge part of daily life and is everywhere we look even when we can't see it. Being able to show students how and where it exist can bring a practicality to the subject which can further engage the students. When students can see that math is all around their daily lives and interests they become more invested in the learning because it can be about them.

Math is being used in everyday sports to help teams win is growing everyday. One of the most notable is shown in the movie Money Ball which is about "Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players." Sports is a huge part of society and can be easily relate able for a lot of students so being able to show how math is being used and creating assignments and lessons that intertwine the curriculum and sports that interest the students.

When looking at working with percentages a strategy often used is grocery shopping because of the tax that is add and also the percent that is taken off for sales. I think this is a great way to teach students because it not only provides the students knowledge of how to work with percentages but gives the students a chance to understand the cost of living. I think we need to expand on this because most students are not really all that interested in grocery shopping in grade 7 to grade 10, but are interested in shopping (clothes, video games, technology, sporting gear, ect) these are the things we should also use because that is what is considered practical to them.

Here is a great video talking about making math meaningful (see the world mathematically) and making it understandable.

Making math practical means making math meaningful to each student, it is hard to learn and to want to learn any subject if you you can not connect with the material, it is our job as teachers to find what the class can connect with and make math practical for them in order for each student reach their full potential. Create intrigue in math by using what the students are already intrigued by.

Daniel Tammet - The Boy With The Incredible Brain

What practical uses can be garnered from studying a genius such as Daniel Tammet? The answer may be "very little", or perhaps we just don't know yet. What I do know is that Daniel Tammet is absolutely fascinating. Imagine being able to recite Pi to 22,514 digits! This is what Daniel did in 2004, sitting in front of three invigilators for over five hours reciting digit after digit without error. His story is told in a documentary entitled "The Boy With The Incredible Brain". Daniel is doubly unique in that not only is he an autistic savant, but he also is a very-high functioning autistic individual. Being high-functioning allows Daniel to share how he thinks and how his brain processes numbers. It is the way in which he processes numbers which I found so fascinating in the documentary. For example, he can perform very large number multiplications without using any traditional mathematical technique. He visualizes them as shapes and when one number interacts (i.e. multiplies) with another number, he visualizes two shapes and the gap in between forms a new shape and a new number. Perhaps further studies of Daniel's brain functioning will allow us unlock greater potential in ourselves and students.

One thing I have taken away from Daniel is his view on intelligence. In an interview with Scientific American, he says "I know from my own experience that there is much more to “intelligence” than an IQ number. In fact, I hesitate to believe that any system could really reflect the complexity and uniqueness of one person’s mind, or meaningfully describe the nature of his or her potential". He goes on to say "Even if we cannot measure and assign precise values to it in any “scientific” way, I do very much think that “intelligence” exists and that it varies in the actions of each person. The concept is a useful and important one, for scientists and educators alike. My objection is to thinking that any ‘test’ of a person’s intelligence is up to the task. Rather we should focus on ensuring that the fundamentals (literacy, etc.) are well taught, and that each child’s diverse talents are encouraged and nourished". It is this last sentence that struck a chord with me. As a math teachers, we surely want to ensure the math fundamentals are learned by our students, but as educators we should also strive to develop each students' own individual talents.

Teaching Kids Real Math With Computers

How often have you heard someone say something like, "kids these days can can't do anything without a calculator"? The thinking behind such a statement assumes that if you can't do math with pen and paper or better yet, in your head, then you aren't really doing math. The flawed logic that drives this assumption is that math = calculations. In the TED talk below, Conrad Wolfram correctly asserts that math is not equivalent to making calculations, but something much greater. So often in our math classrooms students spend a great deal of time performing calculations. Why spend so much time performing calculations when we have machines/computers that can do it much quicker and accurately than ourselves. One of the great takeaways from Conrad's TED talk is that math can be used to solve so many interesting real world problems. Formulating a question, identifying a problem and being able to solve the problem using math is interesting and exciting. What is not interesting and exciting (to many) is the calculations. Yet we have students spend hours and hours doing calculations. If computers were integrated more heavily in the math classroom then students could use math to solve real problems instead of just doing calculations. For example, in the video there is a sample exam question which could be posed (on computer, not pen and paper) which is "which is the best life insurance policy?". Students would use the computer to input variables to determine the answer. Let the computer do the calculation and let the students solve the real problem. Conrad Wolfram suggests that math curriculum should be reformed to emphasize computer based math. I believe this would be far more relevant to students lives, more practical, and definitely more interesting. It should be pointed out that this doesn't mean there isn't a place for hand calculations or that they should be forgotten completely. But if it computer based reforms can make students more more interested in math and perhaps help them in everyday life, then I am all for it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Financial Literacy & Numeracy

Regardless of the subject, grade, or level that I teach, one thing I want to stress to my students is the importance of managing one's finances effectively.  Obviously a math class provides the natural platform in which to explore these issues, and I have been thinking about ways to incorporate real world problems. 

Regardless of the socioeconomic bracket that our students exhibit, we cannot assume that they are receiving sound advice on how to manage their own money.  Frivolity coupled with excess can be a habit that is hard to break, and the sooner that students have to manage their own budgets, the better.  If we want to prepare our students for life in the real world, I think that this is an area that must be addressed throughout education. 

A financial advocate that I admire is Gail Vaz-Oxlade, who is best known for TV shows Princess and 'Til Debt do us Part.  There are different themes that she tackles with those whom she is trying to help, such as:  a sense of entitlement, poor decision-making, and resentment between family members.  As teachers, we cannot expect to cure all of these problems that may exist within our own students, but what we can easily do is show the cause and effect of our decisions.  Some practical ways of doing this might be to utilize sample bills, from a cell phone or utilities company, and discuss how we can lower our costs.  We can also look at the potential pitfalls of credit cards, with which many adults have difficulty.

For those of you who haven't watched an episode of one of the shows mentioned above, I highly recommend doing so.  I think that they could easily be utilized within a math class (or parenting class for that matter).  Either show can provide a springboard for discussion, and the lessons learned would be a valuable asset for students as they begin to transition into independent living.      

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Social Justice in the Mathematics Classroom

In a Masters course I took recently, one of the required books focused on the issue of social justice and how it could be incorporated into different subject areas.  At the time, I found the chapter on math by Elizabeth de Freitas to be of particular interest, not realizing that I would ever be considering math as a teachable.  But, something stuck out to me about the fact that numbers reveal information about society - through statistics and prognostications - which tell us how effective we are in different areas.  Whether the issue is environmental or social, the numbers are a concrete way to show differences and progressions, both presently and longitudinally, which can sometimes paint a bleak picture of reality. 

However this way of engaging students can work as a way to light a fire under our youth.  As de Freitas (2008) writes, "[p]edagogy that dwells on the social injustices of a given context can trigger student 'moral outrage'" (in Wallowitz, 2008, p. 47).  Rather than seeing math as merely learning a concept, practicing, and then demonstrating it, I now see it as a vehicle for change - a way of bringing to light important social issues. 

The renowned social theorist Paolo Friere believed that bringing students' lives into the classroom was a way of reflecting on our world.  As this link shows, it can be a way for students to understand some harsh realities.

A goal I now have for any course I teach is to integrate social justice education in some way.  The following link provides an example of how teachers in New Zealand were achieving this goal.

In my opinion the above examples are great ways of integrating this concept within the math class, though this video shows how the idea can be misunderstood and oversimplified:

I would like to hear if you have incorporated social justice within your own classroom, and if so, how?

Thanks for reading,



Wallowitz, L. (ed.) (2008).  Critical Literacy as Resistance:  Teaching for social justice across the secondary curriculum.  New York:  Peter Lang.