A good story makes math problems more relevant

Professor Claus Michelsen is an author of math teaching material and likes to write small stories to accompany his math problems. He recently published a new set of math stories and problems.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 2/24/2020


Larry and Harry come to Russia, where Putin presents them with seven babushka dolls. This is not the start of a joke, but the framework for a math problem, written by teaching enthusiast, Professor Claus Michelsen from the Laboratory for Coherent Education and Learning (LSUL) at the University of Southern Denmark, SDU.

It is easier to involve the students in a math problem, when there is a story to it. It can be a realistic story that they can relate to directly, or it can be fictitious, which is obviously the case here.

Claus Michelsen, Professor

– Harry and Larry have existed in my universe and in my math problems for many years, and this time they get to meet Putin, who is not a funny man when he gets angry. I really enjoy writing these stories, says Claus Michelsen.

Can Larry and Harry avoid Putin's fury?

The math problem is aimed at the oldest classes in lower secondary school and is included in the catalogue, Matematik Med Øvelser.

So, what role does math play in Larry's and Harry's Putin crisis? Well, they lose one of the babushka dolls, and in order to prevent Putin from discovering this disrespectful treatment of his gift and have a rage attack, Larry and Harry have to engage in various calculations based on height and volume to create a true copy of the lost doll, which can be displayed when Putin returns for a visit to Denmark.

Other math problems in the catalogue evolve around, for example, how Olav can put the best volleyball team, how much Agnes can hope to earn if she decides to rent a shop and give guitar lessons, and how police officer Poulsen solely by studying footprints can calculate the height of the person who, during the night, has anonymously renovated the city's drinking water fountain.

Inputs from teachers in the Faaborg-Midtfyn Municipality

Claus Michelsen's work with finding new ways to involve students in math has been enriched by input from a collaboration with 12 teachers in the Faaborg-Midtfyn Municipality.

– All too often, mathematics is isolated in teaching. We want to put it in a framework that students can relate to, says Claus Michelsen.

For him, the core of math teaching is for children and young people to learn how to “mathematize” their surroundings; that they become able to describe, understand and analyse their surroundings.

– We face a wide range of challenges, which mathematics is a powerful tool to understand and solve, for example the climate crisis, so the world needs more people with mathematical skills, he says, adding that there today is a shortage of employees with mathematical skills in many industries.

A series of teaching material

The catalogue with Larry, Harry and the others is part of a series published by LSUL under the title Laboratorium for Matematikundervisning (Editor's note: Laboratory for Mathematics Teaching). The series of teaching material is a result of a project of the same name, supported by educational funds from the Region of Southern Denmark. The project work is continued with the recent support of DKK 9 million to LSUL from the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Region of Southern Denmark via the Laboratory for Integrated STEM Teaching and Learning. (LabSTEM).

The Laboratory for Mathematics Teaching is a project that, through systematic and targeted development work, will strengthen the math skills of children and young people from primary school to secondary education.

The development work includes didactics, teaching courses with teaching aids, workshop activities and continuing education initiatives, where educational researchers, professional and teacher-students in the framework of authentic teaching environments test, exchange and evaluate new math teaching initiatives together.

Math in daycare centers

Claus Michelsen is head of LSUL,  which is a strategic research, development and education collaboration between the Faculty of Science at SDU and two university colleges, UCL and UC Syd.

LSUL brings together experts, students and practitioners in mathematics, science and technology from daycare institutions to higher education centres and focuses on research, development and education in the science and technology area of the education system.

Meet the researcher

Professor Claus Michelsen is head of the Laboratory for Coherent Education and Learning.