Selling mathematical thinking the Apple way

After reading Gizmodo’s post on the recently created blog Applefied Ads, I started thinking about the relationship of good advertising and the public relations problem that learning mathematics has.

Most people think of math class as that “special” time of day when you learn step-by-step procedures on how to do something. I’ve posted on this before, so I don’t need to go into it in detail. The common idea that math class is a time for nothing more than skill development is the reason this problem exists.

One thing that’s interesting about Apple is that their advertising is always focused first on what it allows someone to do. Some companies often focus on the speed of the processor, the number of ports available, or installed memory. While these are things that Apple might mention in their ads, it isn’t the first thing that is said about a product. Without exception, Apple focuses on how the product will improve things or be different from what is already possible. Despite the media rich world we live in, it does so in a strikingly minimalist fashion.

Textbook companies are faced with the task of engaging with media overloaded students and connect with the oft repeated goal of making math education focused on “the real world”. In doing this, they usually stuff their pages with as many pictures as they can be found, contrived examples, and carefully crafted “investigations” that usually are nothing more than a series of guided steps to a single end. Dan Meyer does an amazing job of pointing out how Pearson has already tried to do more of the same in creating electronic textbooks in this post.

Dan has also done incredible work in getting the mathematical problem to jump off the page or screen, but in an understated and minimalist way through the power of multimedia. If done correctly, you don’t need a bunch of fluffy text or pictures to explain a math problem to a student. A question and a picture or video, and often just a picture, is all that is required to set a student off investigating and developing problem solving skills. In math, these are the skills that will have lasting power and utility for a student beyond a single school year, not the steps of an algorithm.

I wonder what happens if we make a concerted effort to sell math (or any subject for that matter) in the same way that Apple does. What does it enable us to do? How does it let us look at the world in a new way? How can its elegance and beauty be captured through a picture and a few carefully chosen words? How do we get students to think about it as a philosophy?

My purpose is NOT to dress mathematics and mathematical thinking as a ruse to fool students into being engaged by it. This is what many of the textbooks do already. I’d love to see what draws students in and gets them thinking mathematically without our having to mess it up by talking or explaining it further. Less is more.

How would you sell the classes you teach in a way that engages students without tricking them? How would you show what your course is about on the first day of class? Can you do this with a picture and a few words? Try it and share what you create.

4 thoughts on “Selling mathematical thinking the Apple way

  1. I think that there are mathematical objects which are far more interesting to use as a backdrop. Calculus is interesting (once you learn a bit about it, and get past some of the notation), but fractals are HOT.

    1. I completely agree – fractals are my favorite objects to use to illustrate the unpredictable beauty generated through mathematical thinking. The only problem is that they aren’t a focal point of most curricula or classes. My hunt is for images/ads that are evocative of mathematical thinking, aesthetically pleasing, AND are deeply connected to the concepts they will learn in the course. That doesn’t mean we can’t use fractals, but is it possible to show the beauty of linear equations (for example), a more common element of math classes, in this way?

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