Thursday, May 5, 2016

How does a mathematician see the world?

And how does a math teacher help learners to see the world through a mathematician's eyes?
This was a major challenge during the past semester in my Intermediate Algebra sections. Many of the students came to class expecting me to show them a procedure that they would practice until test time - when they would reproduce the procedure and promptly forget it. Nearly all of the students had seen the Intermediate Algebra content in high school (linear, quadratic, and exponential functions) but it hadn't stuck.

This was the problem. They had seen the content. Now it was time for them to use it to see the world. So I shared pictures and videos and asked them to look at them through a mathematical lens.

At one point, a student said, "Just once, I wish I could see the world through your eyes." Exactly! Unfortunately, they were often so afraid of making a mistake, of breaking the mathematical glasses, that they were not willing to even put them on. They did not know how to be playful with the math we were exploring.

So I introduced them to Yes, And ...; this is a problem finding activity that I developed using a well-know improv game where participants accept and build on the ideas of their partners. Here are the instructions for my version:
  • Provide a mathematical context (often pictures or videos) but without any identified problem;
  • Pair up the students and find a fun way to identify Student A;
  • Student A picks one of the contexts and finds a problem to solve;
  • For one minute (this is usually enough time to get started without completely solving the problem), Student A talks through his or her thinking while Student B writes as much as possible down on a piece of paper;
  • After one minute, the students switch roles. I say, "Yes, and ...," to signal the switch and to emphasize that Student B ought to build on the work that was already done.
  • Student B thinks out loud for one minute while Student A records the thinking on the same paper.
  • After one minute, I say, "Yes, and ...," and the roles reverse again.
Yes, And ... can go on as long as the teacher wants. I found six minutes (three rounds) to be about right the first time we played the game. One student submitted this to demonstrate her engagement with the task.

I cannot claim for certain that Yes, And ... changed my students' view of mathematics or helped them to see the world through a mathematical lens. What I know is that for six minutes they played with math. It's a start.

1 comment:

  1. One of my ladies said when a dollop of (expensive) conditioner fell onto the shower floor, she had the urge to calculate its unit price to see how much money was going down the drain. Yes!