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The New Flavor of Math Instruction

In a presentation filmed at a locally organized TEDx conference in Costa Mesa, Calif., last month, former Los Angeles teacher Nigel Nisbet explains how he turned chocolate bars into geometry problems to get kids hooked on math.

Nisbet says he spent his first few years as a teacher struggling to engage students who "had switched off to math." While standing in a supermarket checkout line, it hit him that he might be able to capture students' interest by creating problems based on more relatable (and even universally loved) topics—such as chocolate. He then picked up several chocolate bars in the Toblerone-style packaging and devised a lesson around a single question: "Why make a chocolate bar in the shape of a triangular prism?"

Forced to think critically, the kids eventually joined forces to investigate the shape, and discovered that manufacturers used it to get a package that looked large but contained little chocolate. "The kids realized they were paying more but getting less—and that got their attention. I hadn't told them how to find the answer," Nisbet says.

As Nisbet tells it, he then threw out his textbooks and designed all his lessons around hands-on, real-world problems. Kids began to understand the "language" of math and consequently, their test scores shot up. Eighty-five percent of students passed classes they'd previously failed.

Nisbet's tale sounds intriguingly similar to the one math teacher Dan Meyer told in his own TEDx talk, and in the profile we featured of him last year (see "Life Equations"). Both speakers implore math educators to teach through self-discovery rather than hand-holding, stop relying on textbooks, and to make math more real.

Interestingly, Meyer and Nisbet also both eventually left the classroom—Meyer for a Ph.D. program at Stanford to study curriculum design, Nisbet for a stint in professional development and then to design interactive, visual math games for a neuroscience and education nonprofit called MIND Research Institute.

In his talk, Nisbet says his new position has the advantage of enabling him, through games he has designed, to reach millions of students, including many in low-income schools.

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