Nigel Nisbet gives a TEDx talk about The Geometry of Chocolate

“The kids had switched off to math long before I had even got there.” This was how one math teacher, Nigel Nisbet, described the start of his teaching experience in a high school geometry class. He would draw geometric shapes on the board and run through an exercise problem, then he would have his students answer problems from the textbook, a fairly standard way of teaching. But Nisbet soon came to find that this approach did not help his students learn; in fact, they were learning practically nothing.

What was wrong? He realized that the problems he was giving his math students were not relatable, and did not challenge them to think about something tangible, but only challenged them to memorize formulas.

So what did he do? He grabbed a bundle of chocolate bars (the Toberlerone kind in the shape of a geometric prism) at the grocery store and decided that he was going to challenge his students to do some real math, math that relates to real world problems and requires critical thinking.

Did it work? When Nisbet approached his students with the question, “Why make a chocolate bar in the shape of a triangular prism?” they were intrigued. After chucking his old textbooks and lesson plans, Nisbet switched to teaching lessons that involved real world, hands-on math problems. The students began to understand what he calls the “language” of math, and 85 percent of the students passed classes they had failed before.

I think Nisbet’s new approach is something that should be implemented in every math class. Students have always asked their math teachers, “Will I ever use this in the real world?” and teachers reply with some answer about one’s future finances. But why wait for the future? If math is indeed, relevant to the real world, why aren’t we demonstrating this in the classroom? Let’s shut the textbooks, close the gap between education and reality, and unify the two.