Real math

Students learn by solving real math problems, argues Dan Meyer on a wildly popular TED video, Math Class Needs a Makeover.  An algebra teacher and dy/dan blogger, Meyer is now working on a doctorate in curriculum design.

Rejected as a film student, Meyer tells Ed Week about the “narrative arc” of a real-world math problem. Intead of “shark terrorizes seaside town,” it might be “how long will it take me to get to Los Angeles?”

During what he calls the “second act” of a film, the characters encounter obstacles and find out what they need to do. In a math problem, the second act involves measuring, determining a formula, or finding out what information is missing.

The third act brings the exciting conclusion — with potential for a sequel.

Textbooks label the variables, present the measurements  and ask leading questions in an attempt to help students, Meyer says.  That can overwhelm students.

He starts with the hook: The final question.

For example, when teaching high schoolers, Meyer uses the digital projector to display a photo of himself shooting a basketball. Meyer has doctored the photo so that it shows the ball at several different points along the trajectory, stopping at the apex. “When I put that up on the board, the premise of that problem is obvious to every student. I don’t even have to say it. ‘Will the ball go in?’ That’s what we’re all wondering,” he says.

Then Meyer asks the students to figure out what information they need to determine whether his shot will go in. The students discover they have to measure the arc and need a protractor to do so—in a way writing their own second act. A textbook would have provided this information, Meyer says. But in the real world, “When on earth do you get all the information you need before you know you need it?”

The students can then solve the problem on their own.

Then they watch the video to see if they’re right.

Meyer believes in “delegating the sense-making of math to students.”

In my day, people were always rowing against the current, which seemed like a waste of energy. Or they were trying to calculate when trains going opposite directions would pass, instead of reading the train schedule.

 Get the Math, an educational reality TV show produced by WNET in New York, shows the real-world applicatons of algebra, reports Ed Week.

The single-episode program, as well as the companion website, features three short video segments designed to provide an introduction to teen-favored industries—music recording, fashion design, and video game development. . . . the professionals featured in each video offer examples of how they use mathematical knowledge as part of their creative processes.

Then comes the “challenge.” At the end of each segment, the pro gives a pair of two-student teams a specific industry-related algebraic problem to solve. The videos show the teams working through the problems and then presenting their solutions. The idea, of course, is that other students can play along in their classrooms.

The program, lesson plans and classroom activites are available at no charge at

About Joanne


  1. I only wish that we could align mathematics curriculum with what people need for life, rather than a drive for every child to be prepared to take Calculus in university.

    Thanks for sharing Dan Meyer’s stuff with your audience Joanne, more people need to understand the counter-argument against mathematics curriculum focused on computation rather than problem solving.

  2. georgelarson says:

    Our math experts need to rethink the concept of real math. In the days before calculators I did my radiological and chemical calculations using nomograms. I did my chartographic and gunnery calculations with ballistic tables, graph paper, slide rule, ruler and a protractor. I know people in the railroad business who did their time to meet calculations graphically. They did not use train schedules. Bankers used books of tables.

    Algebra is extremely important. It makes science, technology and higher math understandable. Isn’t that reason enough? I am glad I took a lot of math in college. But in the real world algebra is a last resort used in the absence of other tools.