When I’m wondering how I might transform a dull, textbook task into something interesting for students, I look to the edges!
I ask, what happens to this topic when we explore the outliers? When we see the extremes? What is the smallest or the biggest or longest or shortest possible version of this topic?
Edge cases are great sources of complexity, intrigue, and, yes, fun!
Our Brains Love the Weird and Ignore the Typical
Humans simply cannot ignore the unusual and unexpected. We are wired to spot things that stand out. It’s obvious why! Out in the wild, it’s that unexpected sound, that strange shadow, that unusual movement which present the biggest threat to us.
Our attention is naturally drawn to the unusual.
Which question makes you more curious?
- What is the average height of a human today?
- What is the height of the tallest person who ever lived!?
Or can you resist clicking to learn what the longest English word is?
Which of these flags grabs your attention and gets you wondering?
The unexpected is interesting! And interesting is my goal! So, as we plan lessons, let’s push our examples and our questions out to the extremes and avoid the mundane.
Getting Ridiculous in Math
Are you calculating area? Don’t find the area of something boring like a desk. Please don’t ask students how much wallpaper they’ll need for a room (yawn). Yes these are “real world” applications… but they’re as boring as heck. Seriously. Calculating wallpaper?
Instead, find the area of something ridiculous! Figure out how many students you could cram onto the playground. How many monster trucks could park in your school’s parking lot? How would you need to rearrange the seats of an airplane to accommodate a bunch of Shaq-sized humans (or a bunch of lil’ kindergarteners)?
When we leverage math as a tool to answer ridiculous questions, we’re suddenly skating downhill. It’s actually interesting!
Doing calculations? Pick bigger or smaller (or weirder) numbers. Consider how much trickier it is to multiply by 0.00001 than it is to multiply by 0.1. To get a kid’s brain sweating, all we’ve done is make one number way way way smaller. Rather than 9 + 9, try adding 9999 + 99. Hard to do that in your head, right?! (This was one of my keys to defeating the “show work in math” problem – just give students way weirder numbers.)
Weird numbers are also a great way to pre-assess, too. Ask for just a few ridiculous calculations and you’ll know who’s ready to move on.
Don’t ask for the next step in a pattern. Ask for the 12th, 19th, or 43rd step. One that’s so far out that it forces kids to really, really, really think. When they found out they got it right, there will be much celebrating!
If you’re writing a fraction problem, PLEASE don’t make it about pizza! No one asks how many thirds of a pizza are left. But if your question has to be about a pizza, then make that pizza unbelievably huge. Make it the size of a football stadium. Or have Tiny Tim eat just 2/999 of the pizza. Ask students to grapple with a fraction in a fraction! What would 1/2/2 look like?
Math can answer utterly ridiculous questions like, “How much pasta could you cook in an olympic-sized pool?” or “How long would it take to mow Central Park with a push mower?”
Let’s avoid the mistake of aiming for “real world” examples when the real world is often so mundane. Instead, let loose and get ridiculous!
Rather than pushing kids to write 500-word stories, we’d practice very very very short stories. I’d ask students to rewrite sentences or paragraphs without using a particular letter. These ridiculous constraints draw students in. They ask if they can do more. They start creating their own constraints.
Get ridiculous by asking students to think from particular perspectives. What does a chair think about school compared to a desk? This works in math too!
Ridiculous Examples Expose Misunderstandings
When teaching parts of speech, I’d look for words that could be used as many different parts of speech. Which option do you think intrigued my students more?
Mark the part of speech for each word in bold:
- I care about kids.
- I care about careless kids who don’t give a care about how careful they are when they skateboard in a carefree way.
Not only is Option Two much more interesting, it actually gives me useful information about my students! It breaks the endless streak of 100%s. It revealed weaknesses otherwise hidden by the boring, typical examples. If a student can correctly identify each part of speech in Option Two, I’m convinced that they really know the topic. Plus, I’d always have students who started making their own wacky parts of speech sentences.
Likewise, when identifying simple vs compound sentences, I’d try to create ridiculously long simple sentences.
Is this a simple or compound sentence? I borrowed a seventy–year–old lawnmower from cousin Jane that was broken, rusty, and needed a paint job like I needed a good night’s rest.
Yep, that’s a simple sentence even though it’s not short. I’d catch more kids making mistakes and I’d also inspire students to explore how long they could make a simple sentence.
Uncovering False Patterns
Notice that I’m purposefully attacking the false patterns my students have developed. With simple vs compound sentences, I noticed that my kids believed that “simple sentences are always shorter than compound sentences” or “compound sentences are the ones with a conjunction”. These false patterns emerge when students are only given easy-to-understand examples. So I develop examples that break those patterns. The edge case examples actually make students think!
Ridiculous Is Fun
Answering ridiculous questions or writing under a weird restriction unleashes students’ creativity. It empowers them to make their own choices. Often, students will become inspired to do more just because it’s interesting. (“Mr. Byrd, last night I wrote a Lipogram but this time with only one vowel…”)
And, gosh, it’s way more fun as a teacher to look at student work that surprises even me.
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