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TEDx Talks: Once Upon a Math Problem

Vanessa co-developed Storybook Math, a way of remembering math procedures by turning the math concepts into characters and the problems into stories.





Who here has ever struggled with math or know someone who struggled with it? Yeah, I see a lot of hands go up. And I'm not speaking here today, because I've always loved math. I'm speaking here today because I hated it.


I was diagnosed with a learning disability that made it almost impossible to recognize symbols. When I was eight years old, I told my parents that I was just stupid, and that I would never understand math because that was for the smart kids. And it hurts me so much to hear those words: ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ said in my math class, because I know I would have been the dumb one if I didn't have a story to make math memorable.


In fifth grade, there's this huge split between the people who love math and hate math. And many of those kids that hate math ask themselves, “how is this going to help me in my life?” Well, according to The Economist, math is the only subject in which your test scores directly correlate to your future salary. In fact, studies show that it matters more about how many math classes you took in school, than even what college you're admitted to.


Math really matters for your success. So how do we change these smart and dumb stereotypes? And how do we transform math from misery to magic? Well, I found my answer, hidden in a story. You all know the tales of Cinderella, Pinocchio and Superman, and you'll remember those stories for your lifetime. But you probably won't remember the math formulas you learned in middle school. When you're learning a lesson, or moral in a story, you don't even realize you're being taught. And yet, you strive to retain it and become the hero of the story. This is because stories have been used to teach us since the dawn of humanity. Every culture, empire and civilization has fables to display the perfect human - namely the hero - that goes on a journey that changes him or her to become a better human being. It was never intended for stories to be separate from learning.


It was not until recently that we decided to put up a brick wall, leaving colorful stories on one side and facts and figures on the other. I thought, “why can you have a math problem where the math concepts become characters, the creator frolicking throughout the faraway land of algebra?” On my nonprofit website, Storybook Math.org, we make videos and curriculum that do just that. So, what do you need to make a story? A hero? Preferably with some odd idiosyncrasies, you need the setting, and you need a problem. Math is really good at that.


So let me give you an example Storybook Math. Let’s take fractions. When converting a fraction into a decimal, you divide the top number by the bottom. So how do you make this memorable for a second grader? And how do you turn this into a story? Well, first, you have to ask yourselves, “what stories do second graders love?” Well, they love princesses and pirates and cowboys. So if you make the top number a cowboy and the bottom a horse, then who goes into the division house? Do horses go in houses? No. So the only logical thing to do would be the cowboy in the house and lay the horse outside. Stories transform math from being intimidating and scary, to being wicked fun. If you want to pursue math, you have to transform it into something that you're interested in.


For me, I'm obsessed with storytelling. And when I was in grade school, there was no way that you get me open a math textbook, I'd say, “Mom, opening a math textbook is like walking into the boys clothing department: blue, black, brown and boring.” I wouldn't even try to understand math concepts like ‘greater than’ and ‘less than,’ not because it was hard, but because it was taught in such an intimidating way. However, when we made it a greater than or less than ‘monster’ that tries to eat the biggest number possible Suddenly, it just got a whole lot more interesting. When I put math in the context of story, I transformed it into a fantasy. Let me give you another example of how we messed up math. In geometry, students have to memorize all these crazy theorems, like the reflexive property of equality, which means that a number will equal itself. So how do you transform this into something that will interest you? Well, I played into the insanely long names. The reflexive property of equality became the reflexive property of equality at equal myself. I didn't just tough it out and do my homework. We changed it to be more personal and fun. It's not about facing your fear to get over it, you have to transform it into something that you find interesting.


Let me give you another example. Mean is a math concept that we use to find the average number in a group of numbers. So, if mean just means that you take a bunch of numbers, add them up, and divide by how many numbers you have, then who would the character ‘mean’ be? I think it has been kind of mean, bossy, tough, but overall, just kind of your average guy. On Storybook Mathador.org, we create a video called Late Night Math, where mean was our main guests. And when we was being interviewed, and the audience was learning about some means odd idiosyncrasies, they also learned about who he is and how you use him in a math problem. Math became memorable, because it was a story.


When we relate to stories and characters will memorize them, which is why it's so powerful to combine mathematics and storytelling. Because the last thing you want to hear is, if I had suffered learn math when I was your age, I would have been a whole lot richer, I messed up, but you shouldn't. This doesn't normally make the sale - you have to have a reason and a purpose to learn. Find your passion and calculate it. For example, one of my classmates could not focus on his multiplication worksheets. However, when we use his favorite toy as a tool to teach him, he instantly got the concept and started teaching other kids. When he was saying, “I don't get it.” He was really saying, “I don't get why we're doing this.” His favorite toys gave him a purpose, and reason to learn.


Math is the key to building your dream, and truly understanding the world you live in. Math can make any passion into a success. You can take a polar survey to see how your friends feel about the latest movie. You can use math to design a stylish outfit, or calculate how fast you can skydive out of an airplane. Cliff Nass professor at Stanford, used math mathematically break down what makes someone friendly. He did this so that he could create computers that were quote, ‘nice.’ At Pixar, animators use math to design their characters. For example, in the movie Brave mirror in his hair is composed of over 600 equations. Each of these passions uses math to make them great. Don't just be scared of math, use it, make it fun, design a poll, create an outfit, or calculate how fast you can go. But use math now. Don't wait.


Math was once my weakness. It was the reason people would call me stupid, and say that I just wasn't worth their time. The doctor that diagnosed me said that I'd never be able to function in a classroom environment, and that I shouldn't even dream of going to college. Currently, I have straight A's in every single one of my classes. And this fall, I'll be going to college two years early. In grade school, this wasn't my fate. I never thought I'd be up here, speaking in front of you, trying to sell math.


Stories are my passion. They're what I daydream about. They're what keep me up at night. Combining stories and mathematics transformed my weakness into my power. Storybook Math changed my life. And I hope it changes yours too.

Thank you.

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