Dan Meyer recently posed this question on Twitter:
To this I responded:
Once I posed this idea, I began question/wonder whether it could actually work. Would people actually be interested in a show about math class? Seinfeld was a self-proclaimed show about “nothing”. It was wildly famous. If a show about nothing could be successful, why not a show about math? What would make someone watch a show like this?
Here are the reasons I watched original The Real World:
Could these same elements be found by telling the story of a math class? Could they also produce a show that would be enjoyable to watch? Let’s consider these components one by one.
I believe we can all agree that conflict can easily be found in math class in many places. The conflict of struggling through a new or difficult idea. The conflict of disagreeing about mathematical ideas. The conflict of learning in a way that is different than the way a teacher instructs. The conflict opportunities are endless! This platform could be an amazing way to redefine what conflicts in math class are and the rich learning available in well-managed conflict.
Most people enjoy watching conflict in part because we love a good success story. In each of the conflicts above exists an opportunity to show a student, a teacher, or an entire class productively struggling their way to successful learning. I currently see math as the underdog of education. “I am not a math person” is an accepted statement in our society. Wouldn’t it be great if The Real World: Math Class could depict the math classroom in such a way that the ultimate success story was the rise of the underdog in which all students believed they could be math people? Even more, what if they not only believed they could, but in fact proudly claimed to be math people? Math class might then come to be respected as a learnable and enjoyable subject and anything but an underdog in education.
The success stories of the characters were always most potent when the backstories of each of the characters was compelling. I believe it is safe to say that every student enters math class with their own mathematical backstory. I am reminded of Tracy Zager’s collection of mathematical autobiographies found here. Specifically, you can find my autobiography here. These autobiographies are filled with stories that will leave you cheering, but more often sobbing, as you experience the mathematical lives of these brave authors. Whether our math autobiographies are filled with heroic or horrific tales, these chapters of our lives walk into the classroom the moment we do and play a significant role in our success or lack there of.
Perhaps most importantly, the humanity of the Real World is what attracted me most to the show week after week. I recall reading that the creators of the original show grappled with whether anyone would be interested with this concept of “reality TV”. Looking through the rear view, we know now that reality TV (for all the good and bad it has to offer) changed the landscape of TV viewing. I believe this was in large part because people enjoy viewing the humanity of their fellow beings, created by the conflict, the successes, and the backstories. Seeing the real emotions, the real flaws, the real story of people is the truest of stories that can be told. If any current situation could use some humanity, it is the story of today’s math classrooms. There is a struggle in the real world learning that we are asking our students today to engage in that was not the reality of math classrooms of the past. While the math is the same, the path is different. The humanity of this struggle is exactly the element I would love to depict to connect math learners of old and new.
As a member of the MTV generation and an avid consumer of The Real World for many seasons, I remember well the introduction to each episode:
I offer this as a re-envisioned introduction to The Real World: Math Class…
This is a true story of a group of students enrolled in a math class who had their learning taped to find out what happens when math stops being memorized and starts getting real. The Real World: Math Class.
Would this show be successful? I don’t know. Could it be the way we educate the public about the shifts in math education? Perhaps. Would it be my dream to see math class depicted in Hollywood in a positive light? Absolutely.