Monday, September 24, 2012

On Lions, Wildebeests, and Two-step Equations

Every day at school I get to teach kids from all over the world. Countries of origin? Germany, Singapore, South Korea, United States, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Netherlands, just to name a few. These kids have had life experiences most of us Americans have only dreamed about, many of them growing up in remote parts of Africa, worlds away from what most Westerners would call normal.

DSCN4946Fourth period Algebra 1 class – notice the Beaver Falls polo!

As an Algebra teacher, I get pumped up about things that most wouldn’t see as normal either! Combine the cross-cultural phobia of all things beyond addition and subtraction, with the task of getting abstract mathematical concepts across to a bunch of adolescents, and you can easily see why creative analogies are often required to teach this stuff. One such approach I’ve attempted in the past is when teaching the process for solving two-step equations (math-a-phobes, bear with me).

When trying to solve for the unknown variable in any equation, your job is to get the variable by itself, thereby eliminating everything else around it. Once your equation reads “x = some numerical value”, you’ve probably succeeded in finding the solution. The confusion often arises when students are deciding which term of the equation is best to move away from the variable first. For example, take 3x + 8 = 17; if we are solving for x it is recommended that we first remove the 8 by subtracting it from both sides of the equal sign. Some students are tempted to move the 3 first since it is closest to the x, but I’ve always told them the 8 should be moved first because it is alone.

It is the most vulnerable term in the equation, all by itself, the easiest to prey upon. So my analogy has always been to get rid of the lonely term first, just like a predator will always single out the lonely, vulnerable, or youngest member of the herd to victimize (gruesome, I know –sorry).

In the States, when I presented this idea, I would encourage kids to recall scenes from The Lion King or their most recent exposure to a National Geographic video or some clip from YouTube. However, now that I’m teaching in Africa, my audience has changed dramatically. Most students have been on safari more times than they’ve been in a chlorinated swimming pool, so this time I asked for a show of hands to see how many had actually seen a wildebeest in the wild before. Every hand in all four of my Algebra classes went up. I posed the follow up question as my curiosity piqued, “How many have seen a lion actually hunt down a poor wildebeest like I want you to hunt down the lonely number in the equation?” Still, about half of the kids had their hands up - how cool is that?!

Finally, my silly analogy has found a home where it makes sense! Algebra teachers, please feel free to utilize this concept in your classes, although it will probably go over better if you move to Africa first!


  1. ah I love it!! Thanks for sharing! I always enjoy reading posts from Africa!

  2. you've always made sense to your little sis!
    so glad you are finding things God has been preparing you for, for years ,to make sense and bring Him glory and us a little bit of humor. Love you Dan. miss you. your sis Rach

  3. Ah! Mr. Schmidt! You're still supporting B.F. in Africa! oh and Bible Club misses you dearly!


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