Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Big Idea #1: A TV Show That Changes The Way We Think About Math

This is part one of a special week-long series called Big Idea Week, ideas that I hope will become realities one day soon.

My first idea is perhaps the most ambitious and difficult to get off the ground, but is probably also the most important and necessary of everything I will discuss this week.

America needs an educational reality TV show that makes mathematics easy, accessible and fun for everyone.

The biggest hurdle this country faces in terms of mathematics education is not one of standards, curricula or ability. Our central problem is cultural: America hates math. No subject elicits such near-universal fear, anger and disdain as mathematics does, regardless of the particular focus. The many stakeholders in our educational system are constantly working to overcome this from the inside out: professional development, curriculum writing, technology and innovative student support systems improve with each passing year. Yet all of these positive changes are part of an uphill battle. We have to change the way people think about math. That's where the show comes in.

There are entire cable channels devoted to history, science, and even literature. More directly, these subjects provide the source material for nearly everything else out there. There is no Math Channel; the CBS crime procedural Numb3rs stands alone as the shining example of accessible math in pop culture. Sure, there is educational children's programming that teaches math, but those shows are designed for and reach only their intended audience. What's needed is a fun, interesting show aimed at an older audience that just happens to teach and engage you in mathematics.

What would this show look like? I think the ideal show would take the best elements of children's shows like Mr. Wizard, Beakman's World and Bill Nye The Science Guy and combine them with the wider-reaching appeal of Discovery Channel hits like Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs. It would show math in the real world, in a way that was relevant and interesting to the broadest range of people possible. It could show all of the people who use math every day who never knew they were going to need it beforehand, as well as the math behind the science that's already explored in so many programs. There would be wild experiments and feats of mathematical intrigue, and explorations into the fascinating areas of the subject that we rarely get to talk about in school (like discrete math).

Each episode of the show would be supplemented with teacher resources (lesson plans, projects, experiments) that would be freely available online, part of an interactive website that would help build a community to perpetuate the growth and reach of the show's goal of universal math acceptance. I believe that if done correctly, this could be the first of many shows about math, perhaps one day leading to a Math Channel.

What I'm proposing is nothing short of the first step in a paradigm shift in the way math is thought about. It will make everything else we're trying to do in this country to improve education that much easier.

I'm honestly a little surprised that we haven't seen this kind of show on the Discovery Channel, since they seem to have an amazing ability to find the most fascinating things in the world around us, but perhaps it's just because no one has come along with the right proposal yet. TV executives, hear me: we need this show not because it will teach math, but because it will fundamentally change the way we think about it. That's the kind of impact any show, any network would kill for.

Come back tomorrow for the next post of Big Idea Week!