Seeking Patterns, Building Rules, & Creating Formulas

by Donna Curry

I decided to run for Selectboard member in my little town, thinking I could do so without having to become a politician. Wrong! But, I did learn some unexpected things in the process.

At first, I balked at knocking on doors – just as politicians are probably doing in your neighborhood this fall. I was informed that I should not only knock on doors but also keep tabs on the responses I received because that data would be used just before the election. (Luckily, I quickly discovered that I enjoyed knocking on doors because I got to meet other members of my community, not because it might help me win the election!)

I also did not want to send out postcards or call residents as part of my campaign. I did not think that those strategies were useful in an election. Wrong again! However, along the way I discovered that there are formulas that campaign managers use to get a sense for whether the candidate has a good chance of winning or not, whether more doors needed to be knocked on, whether more phone calls needed to be made. Hmm… probability? Patterns? Now my math radar was perking up!

Initially, I was totally surprised that there would be formulas for running and winning elections. But, the more I thought about it, I realized that I should not have been surprised. Data that can be collected and evaluated over time can become the basis for creating formulas. So, over time, campaign managers have discovered that certain strategies can be used to try to win an election. Of course, this doesn’t always work because elections involve real people who can change their minds after they have heard both sides of issues or have personally met the candidates.

Thinking about how formulas are applied during an election season reminded me of how often my adult learners used to think that formulas were just something that were made up by mathematicians (mostly made up to confuse people, according to my math-phobic students).  But, if students knew that formulas came about because of diligent data collection and close examination to identify patterns, they might feel differently. Once there is a clear pattern, a rule could be described. That consistent rule could then be turned into a formula. Whether or not we realize it, these concepts are what help campaign managers, business owners, salespeople, IT professionals, and many others make predictions that can influence how successful they are at what they do.

Many of the formulas that we ask our students to manipulate began as organized data where patterns emerged so that a rule could be derived. It’s valuable to take time to make sure your students understand that those formulas were not just something that came out of the blue. Rather, there was a pattern happening that they may or may not have recognized, and that pattern could be summarized as a rule in words, which ultimately could become a formula to predict future outcomes. Students should be given opportunities to see how these patterns, rules, and formulas impact many areas of their lives, just as I had to be reminded that formulas influence how I could run a more successful campaign.

To learn more about patterns and politics, check out a recent article from NPR called Campaign signs influence how we vote more than you might realize.

Donna Curry is a happily retired educator, curriculum developer, and professional development specialist with nearly 40 years of experience in adult education and a great love of cats. Her work has focused on math standards development at the national level (Equipped for the Future National Standards and Standards-in-Action projects) and at the state level. She has also worked on the National Science Foundation’s EMPower project and served as co-director for the NSF Teachers Investigating Adult Numeracy (TIAN) project. She co-developed and implemented the Adult Numeracy Initiative (ANI) project and Adults Reaching Algebra Readiness (AR)2. Donna is the former director of the Adult Numeracy Center at TERC and the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center for Massachusetts.