Math doesn’t need to be “relevant” to be interesting – students simply need some degree of fluency to be interested. If you give someone something that they don’t understand at all they’ll feel totally helpless and confused (which presents as total apathy in students). -Riley

I read this last summer, but didn’t really get it until earlier this week when two of my students were acting frustrated, bored, testy, ostentatiously done with me and my class. Circumstances permitted me to sit down with them for three or four minutes and talk about the problem they were working on, just orienting them to the premise, the givens, the goal. I left them alone and when I looked over a few minutes later they were arguing heatedly about the problem — and enjoying it, to judge from the smiles and laughter. They went at it for the rest of class – about 20 minutes.

As Riley notes, Dan Meyer starts every WCYDWT with something the students can ponder from their own experience (example). All the ed classes stress, “What do they have to know and be able to do to access this lesson?” My coaches have been saying the same. I’m not saying anything novel here. I mean, it’s obvious that if students aren’t able to get started, they won’t have a successful lesson. What I didn’t get until now was that if they are able to get started, they probably will have a successful lesson — because thinking is fun — once you get started.

So the puzzle for next year is, given a huge range in mathematical skill and fluency, how can I help everyone get started?