Murder on Gilligan’s Island

April 5, 2010

I went to a linguistics lecture in college to hear a speaker talk about how they had written Dr. Seuss type books for kids. One gem from that talk that always stayed with me is that there are three topics that are immediately interesting to everyone, across all cultures and age groups:

1. Death & Danger

2. Power and Status

3. Relationships between the sexes

After the speaker elucidated these, he pointed out that these are precisely the topics we scrub out of school curricula. In other words, the three things that everyone is guaranteed to find interesting are mostly absent from schools.

While I was teaching elementary school, I started embedding math problems in fairy tales (which I would write), and I tried to make the whole thing as exciting as I could. I found that it bought even the rowdiest classes an extra 10 minutes or so of focused work after I read it (dramatically). For example, I think I had an ogre in one that opened it’s terrible mouth, and had 7 beetles apiece on each of its 12 teeth. At the end, there was one question: “how many beetles are in the ogre’s mouth?” The kids had a printout of the story, and would need to look through it to find the setup, and then they could figure it out. A simple problem (and a relatively quick lesson), but the difference in focus was palpable. For a while I was thinking of writing dozens of them and publishing a little book of “back pocket math story/lesson,” which a teacher could pull out when they needed something fun and stimulating that didn’t require too much prep. Up till now, though, I haven’t pursued it.

How nice, then, to see this cool lesson on logarithms on Math Mama Writes, a really cool blog I’ve been reading lately. The setup is like a game of Clue on an island—someone’s been killed, and the kids have to do imaginary forensic work to try to figure out who did it (involving Newton’s law of cooling—it’s a lesson on logarithms).

I’m curious how well the lesson worked, but I have to say, I like the concept a lot. There’s a story that allows the kids to get involved right away, and it’s a matter of (pretend) life and death. Rousseau suggested a similar tactic in Emile, when he had the “test” for the application of the things he and his student had been working on in trigonometry come when he arranges for them to get lost at night and have to use the stars to find the way home. Now that’s motivation. Teachers today have to settle more often for games and stories, but if the execution is right, it can have a powerful effect.

On the other hand, there are times when the math, unadorned, is the best motivation. Another problem I heard recently: how many squares are there on a chess board? (hint: not 64… consider the bigger squares). I think most kids (and adults) find something that motivates them to think about that right away. Still, nice to have both adorned and unadorned mathematics at your disposal

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