Buzzfeed recently had a hilarious post profiling some of the infamous people from math problems who buy random items (often fruit) in ridiculous quantities. It got me thinking about the contexts we associate with some mathematical ideas.
I once walked into a math class and the teacher was posing the following problem:
"If I had 4745 roses and 26 vases, how many roses can I put in each vase?"
As you might have guessed, the class had recently been working on division with 2-digit divisors. I know the teacher's intention was to have the students practice dividing large numbers and I also know the teacher understood the importance of putting the math in context. I just think by asking the predictable "how many roses in each vase" question, they missed an opportunity for come creative and critical thinking.
When given this scenario about these roses, more than a few questions and thoughts came to mind;
Boy, that seems like a lot of roses.
Why would someone have that many roses?
Is it Mother's Day soon? I should send my mom some roses.
Why 26 vases? I can barely find one vase when I need it. Who has 26?
Roses usually come in dozens; how many dozens?
How would you store 4745 roses? How big (or how many) refrigerators would you need?
How much does a florist make on Mother's Day?
What is the profit margin?
How much do they have to pay to get all those roses? Is there a bulk discount?
What do they have to sell them for to make "x" profit? How many roses (and at what price) do they have to sell to break even?
I could go on for days like this. One question made me think of two or three others.
Scenarios like this on their own are disconnected from a student's experience (and interest). And we wonder why kids are disengaged from the math. I'm not saying there isn't some good math in these scenarios; there's lots of problem solving and reasoning. But this question needs a hook; the students have to want to solve it.
One way to "hook" the students is to embrace the ridiculousness of the scenario. Tap into the kids' silly side and involve them in creating the questions. You are not giving up control of the content - chose your scenarios carefully with the math in mind. Create some of your own questions to keep in your back pocket before you even begin the lesson.
The teacher in the above situation wanted the students to divide. Let the students tease out the different division questions (and let them think it is all coming from them even though you may have created the questions beforehand!). Pick a few questions from the student generated list to work on. Give students a choice of which questions they want to do. Done early? Pick another question or make up one of your own.
So back to the Buzzfeed post. I'll use one of their pictures to reiterate what I mean.
This question is pretty boring on it's own:
"Coach T buys fifteen 12 pound bags of cheese puffs for Coach P. How many ounces is that?" (Whatt?? Who cares?)
Now, add a picture to connect to the ridiculousness. Or better yet, start with the picture and think about all of the questions that come to mind.
As you might have guessed, the class had recently been working on division with 2-digit divisors. I know the teacher's intention was to have the students practice dividing large numbers and I also know the teacher understood the importance of putting the math in context. I just think by asking the predictable "how many in each vase" question, they missed an opportunity for some creative thinking and problem