Posted by: jwhiff | September 28, 2016

Learning Large Numbers Part 1: Endangered Species

I have trouble forcing my kids to swallow any learning without making it 1. genuinely fascinating or 2. real.  Big numbers are fascinating to kids if you find the right context.

I started with sorting species of animals.  No numbers.  Just got them to show me how they would sort them.  Here is the document I used:  interesting-statistics-for-math.  I didn’t use all of the numbers on this page.  I focused on the specific species at first.  Plus, I didn’t give them any numbers at first.

I made sure to show the kids pictures of the animals, too.  I created a Powerpoint that I continued to modify over the course of the project:  animal-guessing.  Don’t reveal the numbers at first.  I added the numbers later.  By the way, you’ll see that I added human numbers after the animal slides.  Save these for later as well.

Next came population numbers for each animal.  I handed out the numbers and asked the kids to make a guess at which numbers matched each animal.  They then created a list of species from the most endangered to the least (according to their assumptions).  This was all done with a partner at first, by the way.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-7-43-05-amEventually the real matches were revealed.  However, these numbers pose an interesting problem:  how do I know if they are accurate?  How are animals numbers even collected?  Do all websites have the same data?

We explored this issue for a number of classes.  The students chose animals off the list and double checked a number of websites to see if my numbers were accurate.  Conclusion?  You can never simply believe the first thing you read.  There was a huge range in what websites were reporting.  This is a very interesting (and important) critical thinking task.

And is 12,000 cheetahs a large number or a small number?  How can you tell?  We tackled this problem two ways.  First, by building the numbers.  Second, by comparing the numbers to populations in human cities.

In order to build the numbers, we needed all of the base ten material in our school, orange paper and meter rulers.  We built animal numbers and we also did this:


We didn’t stop at a million.  We arranged cones in the gym to mark off ten million and hundred million.  Billion was a cube the height of the gym.  By the way, I continue to use the image above in practice tasks I design.  It is a handy reference for all students.

Next comes human populations through cities, cars, garbage and sewage.

Final word on this phase: the kids forget they are doing math.  Plus, this kind of context for learning brings learners of different mathematical strength together in a comfortable space. Kids who find number work boring because they crave bigger challenges love it because there is so much critical thinking involved and they find animals endlessly interesting.  Kids who need practice get lots of exposure to numbers in a meaningful context.  Cynicism is very low.



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