Real Math: A TED-ED series proposal

Join David Wees and Maria Droujkova for brainstorming a mathematics education video series for TED-ED new archive.

Event recording: Voice, text chat, slides, web tour

How to join

  • Follow this link at the time of the event:
  • Thursday, May 12th 2011 we will meet in the LearnCentral online room at 6:30pm Pacific, 9:30pm Eastern time. WorldClock for your time zone.
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About the proposal

The TED-Ed Brain Trust is a private online forum created to shape and accelerate TED's push into the realm of Education. It aims to assemble a new archive of remarkable educational videos designed to catalyze learning around the globe. TED is seeking the expertise of visionary educators, organizations and creative professionals to help guide, galvanize and ultimately lead this exciting new initiative.


During the event, David Wees will introduce the idea of video series centered on real mathematics. Here are quotes from the TED forum discussion (update: temporarily hidden for the content submission phase 6/2011)

David Wees: I'd like to see a video describing the need to move from a computation based system, to one focused on mathematics for the real world (for most people).

If you look at a typical cross-section of our society, I think you'd find that most people lack functional numeracy. They find doing their taxes difficult, they don't really understand either probability or statistics, they are easily misled by data, and actually using mathematics to solve problems in their lives is something they almost never do.

The reason I think this happens is because so little of the mathematics curriculum which is taught is situated in a real world context. We focus on how you solve computations, rather than how do you use computations. We should shift the focus from curriculum maps based on the notation that the pinnacle of mathematical achievement is the ability to do calculus, to an over-riding principle that virtually all of the mathematics we do should be implemented based on its relevance to the real world of ordinary people.

It takes a single year to learn most of the computational mathematics you need to know to do well at Calculus, and those people who choose to go down that path should also be supported, but our mathematics curriculum has totally the wrong focus. To borrow an analogy from the English class, our mathematics curriculum is constructed so that we only teach the grammar and spelling, and never do any actual writing.

I'd like to see a move away from how can we match real life stuff to the curriculum already taught at each grade to what are some real problems kids want to be able to solve, or need to be able to solve when they are no longer kids, and THEN what mathematics is useful to solve these problems.

Bonita DeAmicis: I can see elementary level short videos that present a real-world problem solvable by math (and counting) methods available to elementary children. Then I could see follow-up videos that show children the many different ways people went at trying to solve the given real-world math problem.

TED-ED Administrator: Excellent collaboration going on here! Math people in the Forum (and others), what say we flesh out this series idea? What are some real-world problems that are best solved by math (and that translate well to being caught on video)? I personally am a big fan of this series idea. Agreed? Ideas for improvement?

Joern Loviscach: I would vote for real-life statistics problems, for instance about insurance or the quickest, the safest or the most ecologically friendly way to travel from A to B. People are really bad at this when they do it on a gut level. Another problematic area is how to arrive at ballpark figures, for instance as a sanity check on what we are being told.

Norma Golden: I was thrust into team teaching high school math several years ago and as a non-math special education person, I struggled right along with the students. It wasn't until I was teamed with a teacher who was good at relating real-life situations into her math lessons that I became more comfortable with the subject(...) I think a Ted-Ed series of videos on the math basics related to real-world examples would be a great start. They could be used at every level - elementary to jump start students' skills; middle and high school to remediate and re-teach students with gaps in their learning. I hope this idea takes off!

James Bailey: I work with High School level students. What they seem to end up missing is that all math is connected and that math is simply a problem solving tool(...) A working engineer doesn't have a math problem sitting in front of him to solve. A problem in design presents itself and he has to figure out what best tool to use whether it is calculus or simple algebra. The point is, he needs to have all of the spectrum of tools available to him and know which is the best to pull out and use. These tools aren't limited to Math tools either, science, social sciences and art all play into his solution. Yet, we teach each as if they are unrelated. As I watch TED videos, I am amazed at how people do exactly this- they take all the tools available to them and use them to solve problems with unbelievable creativity. How do we TEACH this skill?

Ken Manning: Hire engineers and scientists who can teach AND know why math is useful. There might not be many of them, but they are out there.

Karen Bellnier: I second the vote for statistics & probability - interpreting medical risks, reading through the data 'spin', debunking sports "truisms" etc. I would add logarithmic progressions (think the old story of the king paying a subject in a doubling amount of rice for each square of the chess board). Also calculating volume and area (how much paint for a wall) and estimation.

Maria Droujkova: I propose the following twist: include not only problems, but reviews of communities where these problems arise, or are relevant, or can be celebrated. I think in terms of communities because of the Math Future project. The goal is for people to have immediate, and explicit, invitation to join groups and communities who use mathematics in these particular ways. TED videos can include bridges - ways people can join communities. This relates to the point Dave Meslin made in his recent TED video, about the need to explicitly and clearly tell people where and how to participate. Gamer communities have problems that have to do with statistics, reverse-engineering, and optimization (World of Warcraft example). Game developer communities do a lot of 3d modeling and vectors. Maker communities (Wired, Maker Faire) have a lot of applied math and topics such as logic circuits. Artists work with perspective, projections, and increasingly modeling for computer art (so, triangulation for example). Ratio and proportion are obvious topics. There are several active health tracking communities, who use a lot of interesting mathematics, for example, The Quantified Self.

Amichai: I believe that mathematics can and should be taught as a tool for solving problems that matter. What types of problems can be solved or approximated with math? What types of problems are solvable, but only with techniques beyond the scope of one's current education? What kinds of problems are too complex to be solved by any mathematical techniques in the world today?

Event Hosts

David Wees writes: My life since I graduated from teacher training in 2002 has been an never ending adventure. I have lived in 4 different countries since then and have met the love of my life and we started our family. I wouldn't trade a moment of it, despite some of the difficulties I have faced. At my website, I showcase projects I have been involved in. I also write articles about incorporating technology into teaching which is a major passion of mine.
Maria Droujkova is the founder and director of Natural Math, and the founder of Math Future network. Her research interests include Early Algebra, Multiplicative Reasoning, and social media. Maria organizes Math Clubs and other local math groups and events, and online communities and events.