Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Randomness and literacy

The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance. Robert Coveyou

I banged my shin the other day. The bruise on my left tibia just below the knee is a painful reminder of this event. A distraction was provided by the phone ringing. I stood up, thinking about answering, and I smacked my leg right into the coffee table. The ringing of a phone is a perfect example of a random event. If it had not rung, would there be a bruise on my shin? Probably not.

Random numbers, randomness, and the generation of random numbers are important topics. Randomness is particularly relevant to current events because of its essential use in modern cryptography, which has been in the news lately with articles about Edward Snowden and the NSA. Embedded within a larger frame of mathematics, science, and current events, these topics can provide plenty of impetus for interesting conversation and mathematical diversion.

More to the point, I intend to discuss literacy in the mathematics and science classroom. What can we do to motivate students to learn mathematics? One technique I have used and will continue to use is critical literacy. The teacher can display, e.g., the text of a newspaper or magazine article that gets the math wrong, that provides an example of innumeracy. This text can then serve as a jumping-off point for a discussion of a proper mathematical analysis.

Another technique I find intriguing is the discrepant event. A discrepant event is a demonstration or a question with a surprising or startling conclusion.  An attention-grabbing event can be used to initiate the process. The discrepancy creates a cognitive springboard and forces the students to think about the subject matter. An example of a discrepant event was provided to me recently. A question was posed about fish bladders, an organ possessed by ray-finned fish such as the largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides. I intend to expand on this topic in a later post.

A closely related technique is the thought-provoking question. How many years is one billion seconds? How many cells do you have in your body? These questions can provide a nice stimulus for a lesson and get the gears turning in the student's heads. Each of which has hundreds of thousands of hair follicles, of course.

Literacy can be used in the classroom to motivate, to captivate, and to initiate discussions. Mathematics is a complex topic, and motivating young students to learn can be challenging. It behooves us as teachers to have many arrows in our educational quivers.

1 comment:

  1. Critical literacy is what is often missing in today's population. People will believe anything that they see in print or hear on the television, even if people are pulling numbers out of thin air. It is easy to get people to agree with you if you can cite numbers, because how can you argue with cold hard numbers? But teaching people to see the errors in those numbers is key, and a great idea to incorporate into your lessons. This could be used in a science classroom as well--how do you reconcile two different texts that come to two different conclusions, but both appear to use solid numbers to bolster their arguments? Where is the logical fallacy, or the mathematical error? Thanks for this idea, John!

    One neat video that I loved when researching my "mole" unit for Teaching Methods last semester was "A Mole is Unit" ( where it tries to convey just how huge a number Avogadro's number is. This relates to your "thought-provoking" question idea. How do we convey what the important constants in our fields truly represent, beyond a number that needs to be memorized?