Three-act math stories

Problem– and task-centered instruction can lead to active learning, intrinsic motivation, and the beginnings of problem solving. One key element in these kinds of instruction is providing a real-life story.

Dan Meyer’s “three act” math instruction is a simple approach for instructing through story and real-life tasks. He’s focused on K-12 math, but I think the approach and the problem it addresses (teaching reasoning and not mindless computation) apply more broadly.

  • Act 1: Introduce the story, beginning with a real-life dilemma. Do this as visually as possible (images or video) and keep the explanation and commentary to a minimum. You want to give students a chance to get interested and to start thinking in broad terms about how to approach the problem.
  • Act 2: Let students discuss the problem and figure out what tools to use. You could facilitate this process with varying levels of involvement, depending on many factors. The important thing is that students call on course materials or previously learned skills voluntarily–with only as much scaffolding as necessary.
  • Act 3: Show the real-life results and compare to the students’ solution. The final, satisfying part. Show the real-life resolution as visually as possible (images or video) and give students a chance to decide for themselves if their solution worked. If it didn’t, you have an opportunity to talk through what they did (educational for you). And if the real-life solution is slightly off or is messier than the calculations, all the better–a teachable moment about real life vs. class.

Meyer’s blog has hundreds of examples, mostly adapted from less-compelling textbook math problems, and he has an explanation of his approach on there. He also has a TED talk (which I link to in spite of my general TED wariness).

I’ve used this approach as inspiration for some pretty neat video-based problems in an (online) economics course, but as I revisit my notes I can tell we didn’t create the opportunity for enough meaningful student collaboration (in that Act 2 phase). Perhaps an asynchronous online environment lends itself to bigger stories, or a different pace, because otherwise each problem would take days.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on how to make this kind of story approach work online.