Things Come in Threes

Dan Meyer’s three acts are well known to math teachers. (For an explanation, see here. Excellent examples are here.) The tasks are engaging and get at the heart of mathematical modelling. According to Meyer, they follow a storyline structure:

  • Act One: Introduce the central conflict of your story/task clearly, visually, viscerally, using as few words as possible.
  • Act Two: The protagonist/student overcomes obstacles, looks for resources, and develops new tools.
  • Act Three: Resolve the conflict and set up a sequel/extension.

Structuring math in threes led to these observations on teaching it:

Three Challenges

  1. Conceptual: Math is inherently abstract. It is disembodied ideas that become increasingly difficult to grasp as you advance through the grades. (Think formulas, functions, proofs etc.) Connecting concepts to the concrete can be a struggle.
  2. Weird: Strange symbols and jargon (not to mention the amount of content teachers need to cover to unpack and make sense of all the oddness.)
  3. Anxiety: The association of math with phobias and stress. For many students, math is terrifying, boring or meaningless. It can result in shutting down and feeling overwhelmed. Which leads us to the next trio…

Three Audiences

  1. Traumatized: Students who have had a terrible experience with math that has turned them off the subject. Or maybe they hit a wall along the way with long division or linear algebra. The ‘I’m just not a math person’ group.
  2. Perplexed: Students who see math as pointless. They are a bit lost, but compensate for it by working hard, following directions and overcoming failures. This group is often the silent majority in any class.
  3. The Naturals: Students who have a feel for math. It makes sense to them. It gives them satisfaction and they have innate talent. They’re not always the ones with the highest grades, but they usually go into careers in related fields.

Three Routes

  1. Illuminations: The eureka moments that help students come to love math after searching in the dark. Whether it’s through explanation, visuals or practice, these are the times that progress is made. Breakthroughs that allow them to keep going.
  2. Connections: Tying any subject to what we already know is effective and math is no different. Sports, music, science, movies, business and nature are all great sources for math inspiration. The traumatized and perplexed benefit and math class is more interesting.
  3. Conversations: Talking about math is underrated. Because it is a concise subject, the more we can grapple with concepts through discussion, the better. Providing opportunities for students to express and argue about ideas is important.



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