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!


Mrs. Fuller said...

I've been saying that for years! Math needs some "cool points" and TV is a great way to do that.

How many times have we heard someone say "oh, I'm not very good at math" and everyone chuckles understandingly . . but NO ONE would say "oh, I can't really read" and expect that to be socially acceptable!

So, who's volunteering to do this project?

stef said...

I think that's a great idea! I live in Australia and remember as a child watching a show that made maths fun. The host was some kind of elf and he lived in a tree. The whole show was from inside a tree. and it tackled maths problems and all that in a fun as way! Sadly i cant remember what its called...and none of my friends have heard of it. But it definately encouraged me at the time to do maths...cos it was fun!!

Matt said...

I agree that this would be a key ingredient in the kind of "paradigm shift" you're talking about. I'm still wrestling, though, with the foregone conclusion that talking about applications is the only way to make math "accessible". I'm not convinced. People don't see math as mathematicians do--as an art. As something to play with. Not just a means to an end, but something beautiful in its own right. That's what I would want to change.

Maybe that would be a goal for Season 2. :-)

Mr. D said...

Matt: I actually agree--that's why I mentioned featuring the stuff you don't get to talk about in school, like discrete math. I think if you strike a balance between the two in *every* episode, that's when you'll have the formula for long term impact (and success).

Matt said...

Well shoot, sign me up. :-)

Jason Dyer said...

Have you seen the Off-Road Algebra video series I worked on?

Robert Talbert said...

If it turns out that nobody can come up with a good pop culture medium (TV, whatever) to provide a positive message about math, I would settle for simply a cessation of all the negative messages that are currently in pop culture. In fact I think if the popular culture out there made a deliberate effort to simply reduce the amount of offhand negative remarks and stereotypes about math that they currently produce, we'd see much progress on the cultural front. And it would cost those folks absolutely nothing NOT to be negative.

Mr. D said...

Jason: Your video series is definitely a step in the right direction!

Robert: Cutting out negative stereotypes would be beneficial, but without a positive influence like the proposed show, I don't see that happening.