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Math salon: how to create a love of math

December 17, 2010

I’m in love with the “Doodling in Math Class” videos that are the latest internet sensation.

The author, Vi Hart, illuminates the joys of math with a biting wit and brutal honesty that is really fun to watch. If you check out her awesome website, you’ll find many more doodling videos, along with the dodecahedron pumpkin she carved, platonic solids made from halloween candy and all sorts of other awesome mathematical explorations.

If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll see she’s a recent graduate who’s intellectual engagement in the creative world of math is both inspiring and highly unusual.

This is the student that I want to teach. More importantly, this is the student I want to help create. You can see the joy in learning bubbling in every balloon polyhedra or snake doodle. She is thriving in the world of ideas, and I have no doubt that she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her. Any graduate program in mathematics, design, music, or just about any creative field would probably die to have her studying in their program. You should also notice that she didn’t need to go to an ivy league institution to do this, and she doesn’t need to post her resume, PSAT scores or AP Calculus score to convince you she’s the real deal.

I’m convinced that if we can get kids on Vi’s track of deep engagement and romantic scholarship, we can ditch many of the faux-measures of talent we and achievement we use today. And I’m further convinced that this is the way of the future, especially in college admissions—imagine you’re an admissions committee at some prestegious univeristy. You’ve got two candidates in front of you with the following details:

  • Candidate A: 4.2 GPA, 2350 SAT, 800 Math SATII, 5 Calc BC
  • Candidate B:

Any admissions officer in the country could easily tell you stories of all the perfect AP Calc and SAT score students they’ve admitted with the hopes that they would do great things in mathematics only to find that they never took another math course in college. And any admissions officer who took 30 seconds to poke around Vi’s site would easily recognize that she’s different. Decision made.

So how do we create these students?

Vi’s posts and sculptures got me thinking back to this video:

When I see this video, I imagine tons of 7 year-old Vi Harts, playing with puzzles and battleship, asking questions, exploring math, and never worrying about whether what they are doing is right. And I want to bring this spirit of mathematical wonder to my students and the larger community.

I showed this video to my classes a long time ago, when they were complaining about math was so hard, because in they don’t get retakes and it’s all about the right answer. I also challenged them that I think we could create a math salon like this at our school, for elementary age kids all across Atlanta.

One student, S, decided to take the idea and run with it. S is a brilliant student. She read the first article I gave out about Dweck’s work, and criticized it for not having a control (turns out Dweck did have a control, but it wasn’t mentioned in the piece). She’s gotten perfect scores on every problem, so much so that I write challenge problems on the back, and she does those too. When students wrote up answers to the when do to trains collide if one leaves from LA and the other leaves from Atlanta, she worked out the general solution, googled the speed of trains and the tracks they’d be taking, and came up with the city in New Mexico where they would collide, and wrote it all up in scientific paper that could easily be published in the “Journal of Rail Dynamics.” But, S is also pretty focused on perfection, and though she loves learning so much that she bounces up and down when solving a system of equations, I worry that she isn’t as interested in finding questions of her own, and settles for getting the bonus right and the 105% average, when she could be doing original scientific research and changing the world.

S and I have discussed this, and I would say she’s making huge strides (she’s one of the lead researchers on our mindset project) and more important for the purposes of this post, she’s spearheading our plans to start a Math Salon.

After one exam a month or two ago, I asked every student to email a question they had about the exam and their progress on corrections for homework. Naturally, S, who didn’t miss anything, asked me what she should do, and I said, “just start a conversation with me.” And that conversation lead to me suggesting she might be interested in getting a Math Salon off the ground. From there, S took off, finding friends to help her with the effort, connecting with a local charter school where she tutors, and writing out the following proposal for funding from our service learning program. Yes, these words are 100% the words of a 9th grade student. So if you’re looking for a very junior researcher to join your lab this summer, and maybe help write a few grants, let me know and I’ll put you in contact.

Here’s hoping we create a few more Vi Harts and inspire a bit more doodling in math class.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2010 10:22 pm

    Really interesting stuff. Yes, I would rather teach ViHart than a student with perfect SAT scores and a high GPA that is not curious about extending the learning into something more creative. The big question is, how do we promote learning environments that all the “ViHarts” of the world to create and thrive? I seriously do not think it will happen if students attend classes that are teacher-centered, textbook driven, test and quiz oriented, covering content disconnected from real world problems, and covering content broadly rather than deeply. I think students like ViHart find their passion and get engaged with it because they are doing things that draw their attention and get them engaged.

    In their book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, Marzano and Pickering study the question, what makes some classrooms engaging and others “boring” to students. They believe we are vying for the working memory of a student and what stimulates working memory is attention to task and engagement in them. The attention is part of the emotional domain–do I like this class, am I interested, does the teacher care about me? The engagement is part of the cognitive domain–how important is this to my life, what efficacy does this have in my life, does this matter beyond today? So one side is about the relationship of the learner to the teacher and the other is about the relationship of the student to the content.

    If we do a death march through large amounts of information that we quiz, test, quiz, and test students on, it is not likely to get information into working memory because there is little attention to the content and little engagement with it.

    I think we need to transform the way we teach, what we teach, and how we assess student learning. If we do, then we have a chance of developing students like ViHart.

    Good videos and very stimulating post.

    • December 18, 2010 2:35 am

      I agree with you, we certainly need to transform teaching in order to make more students like Vi Hart. But I’m not sure that that can happen overnight, so in the meantime, I propose that we encourage students to see school as more of a day job, and think about developing a deep interest on their own, outside of school. I want students to worry less about achieving perfection on every single homework assignment and test, and instead, devote some of their energies to developing a deep interest and changing the world. And once a student finds deep engagement in something, I think it’s easier to transfer this engagement into other things, like school work.

  2. December 20, 2010 8:03 am

    As for me, I would prefer to learn alongside Vi Hart. I hope I have little preference for whom “I teach.” In all honesty, Vi Hart could teach me a lot more than I could probably teach her. When might our classrooms work more like organisms than hierarchies? Mutual learning might do more to promote learners like Vi and me. What might that “classroom” look like? When classrooms are filled with learners, instead of hierarchical dilineations of “teacher” and “student” some really interesting things can happen. However, I realize that this is fairly “radical,” and I have also experienced recently the “detox” that students must go through when they have been enculturated in the assembly line of learning which explains many current school setups. I believe the key is having learning environments which promote and center around problem identification and solution rather than coverage of content. Identifying and solving problems has a way of creating relationships and learning that content-driving falls short of… except for a few “students.” Please know that I believe in content, but I believe in content IN CONTEXT. Above all, I believe in learning, growing, and getting better. So thanks for the post and comments that stretch my learning, growth, and development.

  3. January 22, 2011 8:27 am

    The students (and teacher) at Sterling Home School Academy love Vi Hart and are also delighted to have stumbled upon your insightful blog.

    How do we get the password to watch “I don’t HAVE to, I GET to.”?


  1. How to get rid of AP…start by changing the conversation « Quantum Progress
  2. More on Vi Hart and passionate communities « Quantum Progress
  3. Planting seeds: math/science salon begins « Quantum Progress

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