Math makes me giddy. It’s not an easy feeling to translate.

I was recently trying to help a student with what I thought was a fun and interesting math exercise. Here it is: What is the weight in tons of $1 billion in $100 bills?

Just because it’s fun, let’s go through the solution.

OK, I just lost almost everyone. If you’re still reading, $1 billion in $100 bills is 10 million bills. Around 6 bills would cover a sheet of copy paper, and 100 sheets weigh 1 pound. (And of course 2000 pounds is 1 ton.) We’ve now got all the information to turn bills into tons, just by lining everything up and canceling the units. I find it beautiful and amazing. It makes me giddy.

So we’ve got (10,000,000 bills/1) x (1 sheet/6 bills) x (1 pound /100 sheets) x (1 ton/2 x 1000 pounds).

Five of the zeroes cancel, so we’re left with 100/(6 x2) tons = 50/6 = 25/3 = 8 1/3 tons = wow that’s a lot of lifting. It makes the whole idea of stealing a billion dollars in $100 bills look pretty near impossible unless you’ve got a dump truck. And that’s pretty cool.

My learner didn’t think so. To her this was painful, boring, totally pointless. When teachers try to make an exercise like this fun, they almost always fail with almost all their learners. I did a similar activity with high school students once, convincing myself that they were actually getting this beautiful and incredibly useful idea of unit cancellation. Later I found out they were passing the answers around the class for all to copy.

Kids are smart. They know the game. They know it’s more important to you than it is to them, and they’ll use that against you. If you can’t catch them somehow, get them to feel giddy, too, they just won’t learn.

It’s kinda lonely, getting giddy about math.

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