Why we use more than math textbooks and general-purpose resources

For last Sunday’s study group, we focused on algebraic expressions. The kids were a little out of sorts at the beginning. “Math is boring,” one said.

“The way it’s taught in school, maybe. But math is really useful in life, so it’s good to learn it,” I said. I shared a few examples of saving money with math, enjoying life with math.

The group warmed up using a matching exercise, matching the word problems on the left side with the algebraic expressions on the right. Then we worked through some of the problems I’d prepared. In one afternoon, we talked about:

  • cats and how much food they eat (1/4 cup, twice a day, 365 days, n cats…)
  • T-shirts, sleeping cat toys, and chopsticks that look like lightsabers
  • how much it might cost to eat onigiri for every meal, every day, for a year
  • how long you might be able to eat onigiri given a particular budget
  • Scott Pilgrim, Wallace, and Knives Chau
  • more cats, including Neko on my head

There are several types of exercises. Completely abstract ones (here’s an equation, solve for n) get lots of confusion and little engagement. Practical exercises (how much would this cost after tax?) get some interest. Outlandish exercises drawing on the kids’ interests get lots of laughs – and solutions. So we mix practical exercises and outlandish ones, one to show math in real life and the other to get the kids involved. It’s like improv comedy, but for education.

This is where parents and tutors really need to step in and mix things up. Textbooks are written for everyone. They can’t take individual interests into account, and they can’t be revised each month to take advantage of pop culture references. When you make up your own exercises, though, you can do whatever you want.

I know J- likes Scott Pilgrim, Fruits Basket, and cats, so they turn up in math exercises. It’s not hard to pick up some standard forms of exercises from textbooks and translate them into more interesting situations.

Helping someone learn? Make up exercises based on their interests and see what happens.

  • Joel Garza

    Have you thought about combining in your drawing/presentation chops and contributing a lesson or two to some of the open source education repositories for teaching resources? :-)

    I’ll try to come back with some links of things to share, as we have been looking for supporting resources to augment the textbook and classroom materials for a richer and more effective learning experience.

  • I haven’t thought about that yet. Thanks for the suggestion! There’s a lot of good work (not enough, but still plenty) focused on the classroom space, and quite a bit focused on individual learning. I’m currently more interested in small informal study groups (and maybe coaching other parents on how to coach kids!), so I’ll probably write more about that. =)

  • Joel Garza

    You know, that actually a better spin on it, for informal study groups. I’ll have to keep looking to see if there is something in that space because that fits better.

    One of the things that I saw that I thought was pretty neat, and was previously oblivious to, are the Pencasts people create with the Livescribe Smartpen, (www.livescribe.com, under pencasts). I watched a sample of an algebra problem and I thought to myself that was really neat to see. Now to find some that show solving proofs in automata theory. ;-)

    Having done some tutoring sessions in math on a tablet, I never explored using a screen recorder to capture the action as it happens along with descriptive audio. This would have been a boon to the later review my tutees did on their own with just the captured content.

  • You should check out this ex HS-math teacher (currently PhD student). He has some awesome ideas. Look at his blog in particular.


  • Thanks for the tip, Gail! I’ll check out his site and share what I’m learning.

  • Since you love drawing, I think you should check out this awesome book project: http://www.math.upenn.edu/~ghrist/FLCT/
    It’s calculus, so it’s too advanced for the kids. But I think it’s a good example of how to mix maths and fun.


  • That’s a cool idea! =) Thanks for sharing.