The Pseudocontext 2016 Deserves

The Pseudocontext 2016 Deserves

2016 has been the year of the lolsob. I have my reasons for feeling that way, and I’m guessing you might too. In that light, I’ve especially started looking forward to Dan Meyer’s “pseudocontext Saturday” posts. In each one, he finds a picture from a math book and challenges readers to figure out what math concept is being illustrated or tested with each one. Is a rock-climbing kid illustrating a question about types of quadrilaterals or counting by tens? Does a picture of a dartboard accompany a question about probability, circle sector areas, sequences of numbers, binomials, or the quadratic formula? With connections this tenuous, even if you get the question right, you lose.

Image: Sam Wolff, via Flickr.

Image: Sam Wolff, via Flickr.

What is pseudocontext? Meyer writes, “We create a pseudocontext when at least one of two conditions are met. First, given a context, the assigned question isn’t a question most human beings would ask about it. Second, given that question, the assigned method isn’t a method most human beings would use to find it.” (For my money, the all-time prize for pseudocontext will always be this question from the New York Regents Exam shared by Patrick Honner, though as he states, the story is so flimsy it’s not even pseudocontext.)

Pseudocontext Saturdays don’t just give us an opportunity to lolsob about the bizarre and irrelevant “real-world” questions math textbooks often ask. Commenters can also suggest better questions to ask that go with the picture or that explore the concept the picture was trying to ask about. Felicitously, as I was working on this post, I read Dana Ernst’s post about students generating examples on the MAA blog Teaching Tidbits. That post isn’t about students asking real-world questions necessarily, but it makes me wonder if it’s possible (or desirable) to get students in on the pseudocontext joke: 10 points to Gryffindor for the best math question that would actually relate to the picture in question!

If you’re not already reading Meyer’s blog, there’s a lot more there to enjoy beyond pseudocontext. Meyer is a former high school math teacher who now works for the online graphing calculator Desmos. Though I haven’t spent much time talking math with high schoolers, I appreciate the thought and energy he’s put into figuring out what will reach students the most effectively and how to spur them to ask the questions we want them to be asking about math. As a bonus, his blog is also one of the few places where you can really read the comments. He encourages people to participate and have real conversations in the comments section, often highlighting selected comments in his posts. How refreshing!

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