Exploding Bananas and Math

Today I was reminded of Gorillas, a game where you lob exploding bananas at your opponent. (You can play a Flash version of the game here)

You are given two variables to control: Angle and Velocity. Get the right combination of the two, and, blam! your opponent is a cloud of red pixels.

Think about that: At the tender age of nine I was working with angles and velocity--not to mention that pesky notion of multiple possible solutions based on two variables in a function. I would not return to these concepts until I was in high school physics. And, surprisingly, by the time I got there, the subject was at lot more difficult.

Why?

Because rather than learning how velocity and angle relate to each other in a parabolic arch--ignoring, as we always do, wind resistance--I was forced to memorize the mathematical equations and computations needed to solve for the function. It was dull and uninspiring. In fact, I really didn't like it. Except for the one assignment where we rolled a marble down a ramp and attempted to hit the center of a target on the floor. That was applied mathematics. And it was fantastic.

The thing about Gorillas is that it is not--at heart--an educational game. The "educational" bits are left off (e.g. equations). So, sure, Gorillas didn't teach me the formula, but it did teach me very high level concepts. And while Physics taught me the formulas and computation, it didn't really teach me the problem solving skills.

I found the TED talk linked from Mary Mimouna's post to be fascinating. In it, Conrad Wolfram argues that we should stop teaching computation and start teaching math.

On the one hand, memorizing the basics of computation and equation building helps a ton when you're trying to figure something out. On the other hand, I think a lot more kids would discover that they love math if it had more to do with exploding bananas and less to do with "show your work" and "don't use a calculator."

The more I hear about math education, the more excited I am about MathTacular. We designed these DVDs to teach the concepts and demonstrate the calculations. I think it's a great balance.

What do you think of the Experimentation/Computation tension?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

About Luke

Filmmaker, Writer, Pseudo-Dad
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4 Responses to Exploding Bananas and Math

  1. The Reader says:

    I'm only getting into this thought lately as my oldest struggles with math and my youngest learns in a way different way. We're moving to a more experimentation direction at our house, and it's a little intimidating to me. I used Singapore for my older boys, through 5A & B. the more advanced the concepts got, the less it worked for them. We switched to Teaching Textbooks, and the format helped. We allowed calculator use for my oldest (7th grade) and the frustration level disappeared. Now with the youngest I'm in all new territory, looking at things like Miquon, Math Tacular, SL's "manipulatives guide" (which I remember from way back, honestly, and loved) and straying far from traditional math.

    I'm just grateful that SL offers programs from both approaches, because I do think different kids learn better with different formats.

  2. Kris says:

    I really struggle with this. My daughter is a whiz at conceptual and mental math and did very well with Singapore through 5B. I never made her show her work and she seems to have an intuitive understanding of mathematical concepts. However, when she took standardized tests last spring there was a huge gap in the scores between the computation section and the conceptual sections of the test. She didn't have the patience to work through the multi-step computational problems carefully, like long division. We are using Teaching Textbooks 7 this year in an effort to give her lots of practice on the computational algorithms. She is hating it and not enjoying math anymore. So now I'm thinking maybe I need to just give her a calculator and go back to a math program with less mechanical computation. I'm just now sure how to get the balance!

  3. Warren Baldwin says:

    Luke,
    We had a physics teacher from Pepperdine speak for us at Bible camp for a week. He was so good we had him back a couple of years later. He did little "tricks" or demonstrations illustrating physics laws or rules. Then, since it was a Bible camp, he made application to spiritual values/truths. It was amazing.

    I think anything that can be demonstrated visibly (for me anyway) makes it more understandable and lasts longer in the memory.

    Same is true of principle for life, such as living honorably, caring for family, etc.

    Very good post. wb

  4. Luke says:

    So true, Reader! I know some kids thrive on Saxon. By the time I hit Algebra with Saxon--back before these other options were available--I completely gave up on math until we found a program that matched my learning a little better.

    Kris, yes, this is a very complex issue... especially with so much of testing centered on computation (as the video and you both attest). I'm not sure what to suggest for your daughter, but I hope you find a solution soon. You may get some good pointers by chatting with an Advisor or asking around on the Forums.

    Warren, seeing things "in the real world" really helps me grasp the concepts as well. Sounds like the physics demonstration was super cool!

    ~Luke

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