YOU CAN MAKE BORING THINGS RELEVANT
When I was in my 20s, I got a professional haircut (a rarity for me). While clipping my locks, the stylist remarked, “you’re so lucky. Curly hair is really ‘in’ right now.” Her words struck me as odd. My hair has been curly from day one. It won’t ever stop being curly. Why should I care if it is in or out at a given point in time?
This is the reality that most of us face. We work with content that is fixed, or a mission that is fixed. And we have to figure out how to style it for different times and different trends.
But doing so doesn’t have to mean buying a wig.
I started my career in science centers. I had a degree in electrical engineering, a love of math, and a desire to share that love with the rest of the world. Trouble is, most people don’t see math as a hot commodity. I’m not sure math has ever had its curly hair moment.
In math and science institutions, there are two common approaches to making content relevant: connect it to daily life, or make it fun. The latter is particularly prevalent in science centers, which are full of bright colors, buttons to press, levers to pull, and explosions to enjoy. In my early career, I created puppet shows about math. Pretended to be a mad scientist doing chemistry demonstrations. Made some truly dumb jokes. The theory is that fun is always relevant to families, and thus, an easy starting point for enticing people into interest in science.
I now feel that fun is, for the most part, irrelevant to math and science. Fun is fun. It’s a charming distraction. But science and math are so much more than fun. When you think about their core, the doors they can unlock—careers, invention, discovery, sense of mastery, understanding of the universe—fun is very low on the list. It’s irrelevant. Like selling church services with signs about sex. Not that science isn’t fun (nor that salvation isn’t sexy), but it’s hardly a laugh a minute.
Irrelevance isn’t benign. It’s dangerous. When we coat science and math in fun, we aren’t inviting people in. We’re distracting them on the doorstep.
What does it look like when we make math relevant to people on their terms?
It looks like Maths on Toast. Maths on Toast is a British nonprofit that connects families to math in new ways. Their name is based on the British truism that everything tastes better on toast: beans, marmite, cheese… and math.
Maths on Toast makes math fun. But that’s not where they start. They start by acknowledging that many people think of math as boring or impossible. The way math is taught in school often feels dislocated from life, and that dislocation continues into adulthood. Most people don’t spot the math they use on a daily basis. The usefulness door is invisible. The enjoyment door doesn’t exist. The fun door is a fantasy.
What doors do exist? Maths on Toast starts by asking what people see as relevant when it comes to math. Despite all the negative feelings that many people have about math, everyone knows that math is necessary. They know they need to pass math tests to advance in school and get good jobs. And while math may feel like a necessary evil, the “necessary” part is key. People know they need it. Ergo, it is relevant—even if begrudgingly so.
So Maths on Toast asked families what aspect of math they felt was both needed and dreaded. The top answer: times tables. Parents and kids were spending hours trying to memorize 8 x 6 and 4 x 7. Clearly they thought it was relevant—that’s why they were doing it. Trouble is, they weren’t having any fun. Math felt like a room they had to slog through on their way to other goals. Could Maths on Toast make the room a little more pleasant to hang out in?
Maths on Toast staff learned more from families about the ways they love to spend time together. They learned that families enjoyed spending time together making stuff, playing games, and making things up. So they decided to try to frame times tables in those terms—to make it relevant both to the desire to know math and the desire to enjoy time together as a family.
After months of testing with families in community centers and libraries, Maths on Toast developed a matching game where you have to find two cards that have the same number meaning. The 3×4 card is a match for the card that says 3+3+3+3, as well as for the card with 12 dots on it.
The game was a hit. Families enjoyed it, and children found it interesting enough to play for a long time. Part of what makes the game fun is the satisfaction of spotting a pair of cards that matches. That satisfaction is not a fancy wrapper around some boring math. The satisfaction is in the math—in making a new mathematical connection. And if you can experience that positive cognitive effect it while playing a fun game with family—even better.
Wait a second, you might be thinking. This sounds suspiciously like making math fun. How different is this times table game from the zany science workshops I facilitated at the Capital Children’s Museum?
Maths on Toast establishes relevance based on a real understanding of their intended audiences’ needs. People know that they need math to succeed, even if they dislike it. And specifically for families, they want to find ways to make unpleasant tasks around math (like memorizing the times table) feel like pleasant family activities. Maths on Toast started with necessary evil and ended up with interest, enjoyment, and meaning.
This is quite different from the way we approached science programming at the science centers and children’s museums where I worked. In my experience, we often took an institution-centric (rather than an audience-centric) approach. We loved math. We dressed it up, splashed it around, made it loud and zany and exciting and silly. That may have been fun in the moment. It was certainly entertaining. But it may also have exacerbated the sense that math is foreign, that math is other. It certainly didn’t help families unlock more enjoyable entry points into the math they were working on every day.
I don’t begrudge any science center the right to make things entertaining. But even that word should give us pause. Is our goal to entertain people? Or is it to help them unlock the power of math and science in their own lives? The difference is a matter of approach, and a matter of relevance.