Mathalicious Lessons: One Year In

I’m a little over a year into using Mathalicious lessons, have taught about 15 of them, and I’ve learned a great deal — about what application is, what application isn’t, and what application can be. I’ll refer to this post by Karim, which is more articulate than I can be, if you’re curious for more. But seriously, they’re great. Along the way, I’ve learned two big lessons:

  1. The world is pretty cool. I want students to be engaged in my class — and I’m likely to be more successful with that by finding something cool in the world than wrapping mathematics in whatever my students are interested in. Daniel Willingham makes this point eloquently in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. I can cater to students’ interests, making the math about basketball or video games — but the lesson usually comes off contrived, is limited to a subset of students, and can easily be boring despite relating to something the like. Instead, Mathalicious lessons take something real — catching disease, watching movies, buying sneakers — and, whether it’s something my students were already interested in or not, the lesson hits that sweet spot where they want to know what comes next. That interest, for the sake of learning something new, is enormously gratifying as a teacher.
  1. The world being pretty cool can make a big difference in engagement in my class. But that doesn’t necessarily mean students are engaged in doing math. That’s fine sometimes — we don’t have to do 100% math in math class — but there has to be math involved. Some Mathalicious lessons we end up a bit off track — students want to know more about what TV shows I watch, rather than calculating whether I’d save more money using Netflix or Apple TV. Others I can ride the engagement and interest in the room to convince students to do some math they’d otherwise be reluctant to try. But the best Mathalicious lessons are ones that place math between the students’ questions and their answers. If the questions I can get students to ask are ones answered by serious mathematics, I’m in a great place for learning. It’s a tough balance to walk, and it involves purposeful facilitation from me to push my students to ask mathematical questions and careful consideration of what my students know and what is in their reach.

This can take lots of forms — I make students mad about the injustice of expensive payment plans for municipal fines, and they want to see exactly how long it takes for someone living on an hourly wage to pay off a speeding ticket. Or I can put my students in the position of a pharmaceutical executive and see who can guess the most profitable price to sell allergy medicine, and then pit them against each other to see whose will make the most money. These are pretty humble questions — my students didn’t come into school asking them, and I often swing and miss, trying something I think will be engaging that falls flat. But when they land, they create something pretty cool.

These moments — when students have a question they genuinely want to know the answer to, and they need some bit of math to get it, and that bit of math is exactly what I want them to learn — have been some of my favorite all year. Most of all, I’ve learned it has little to do with what my students like to do with their time outside of school, or even if students have invented the questions themselves rather than being deliberately pushed there by me. It’s just finding something worth learning, finding the math inside of it, and trying not to get too much in the way.

4 thoughts on “Mathalicious Lessons: One Year In

  1. msjwright2

    “[T]he best Mathalicious lessons are ones that place math between the students’ questions and their answers […] finding something worth learning, finding the math inside of it, and trying not to get too much in the way.” Beautifully analyzed and expressed!

    I agree that the meaning doesn’t have to be found in something they are already passionate about — in fact, maybe it’s better if it isn’t. For me, too, the only lesson that really fell flat was Flicks. They all had well-formed, strong opinions that didn’t lead to any questions that could be answered by the lesson… basically, class discussion made me feel like I was trapped in a very effective Netflix commercial. I thought the math and the lesson design were outstanding, but students were just going through the motions comparing the three providers. It reminded me of when this lesson: flipped from one year to the next from interesting and compelling to being about some weird alternative universe the kids didn’t care about.

    On the other hand, the pizza pricing lesson (Domino Effect) went great, despite the fact that nobody really started the day wondering how Dominos priced their pizzas. Exploring the connections between the math and the pricing was really satisfying for them.

    I only started with Mathalicious mid-year last year, and mostly used it for Math 8, but I am REALLY looking forward to integrating Mathalicious lessons into my Math 6 classes this year.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I like your point about lessons working well with one group of kids and not with another — and that’s hard to predict, even if you know the students really well.

      I think the point about prior opinions that students won’t change is another interesting one. On one hand, it feels like math as a tool should be really powerful for learning more about the world, in particular clarifying things we don’t understand. That said, I have often found lessons more successful when they are confirming students prior beliefs. Not sure what to make of that trade off.

  2. Karim Ani

    We’ve been talking about launching a marketing campaign later this year. To facilitate that, someone recommended that we write a Mathalicious Manifesto to help clarify our own thinking around what we’re about and what we’re ultimately trying to accomplish. It’s surprisingly hard, but whenever I think about Mathalicious, I keep coming back to a single word: “conversations.” Putting teachers and students in a position to use math to have conversations that matter. (However one defines that…that matter to them, that matter to society.)

    Thank you for writing this post. I’m very happy that we’ve been able to offer you something valuable. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting you in person a few times, and enjoy reading what you write. You’re a very thoughtful teacher. I bet you’ve had some awesome conversations with your students, and I’m really proud that we’ve been able to play a small role in them. Thanks for that!

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I would love to read a “Mathalicious Manifesto”, and would especially love to share it with other math teachers — I have trouble finding compact resources that are effective at communicating these types of ideas.

      I really like the idea of conversations, especially because it makes the math a natural part of something we do every day — getting kids to move away from some of the things they might do in math class, and instead think about the question or the situation in front of them. Makes it more fun and engaging, and also makes really important connections contextualizing and decontextualizing through math.


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