Do You Gotta Get a Gimmick?

It is possible that the lessons to be had from burlesque for the teaching of mathematics have not been so fully appreciated. To help rectify this, here is a number from the musical Gypsy.

And the question: when teaching mathematics, do you gotta get a gimmick? Do gimmicks help? Or, do they simply give the illusion of helping?

I’m honestly not sure. I’m not even sure if my own teaching is gimmicky (although at times it has been described as burlesque).

28 Replies to “Do You Gotta Get a Gimmick?”

  1. I’m guilty of using gimmicks. I don’t know the answer to your question. Sometimes they work well, I feel. I have heard feedback from students years ago that they remembered the gimmick and that was helpful for remembering the math. But I worry that there could be students for whom the lesson was made more difficult by the gimmick.

    Perhaps the answer is that sometimes gimmicks are good, and sometimes they are not. Like exam questions. But somehow it is more difficult to tell what the characteristics of a good gimmick are. Quick, easily identifiable? Or should they be more substantial and related to the math?

  2. Nobody does it better than Jack Black. I am afraid that many people teaching math today have more or less the same skills (means none in math) hence the same concepts

    1. Yeah, great clip (and great child actors).

      I’ve been grumpy about people commenting with videos, but for this post it seems fair enough.

      1. Okay duly noted, Marty. I posted it in response to your video 🙂 Should it be a house rule? One responds with a video only if the original post has a video.

        1. Definitely not a house rule. I hate house rules. But some commenters have been over-indulging. I’ll delete when the mood takes me.

          1. Great, then I will reply with another video that is very popular in our family, and if you get annoyed by it, feel free to delete 🙂
            This video touches on many different aspects of math education

    2. It was “minus one” when I went to school (and uni, and research, and international conferences).

      “negggative one” is mathematical crap.

      Fun fact: German students often call negative numbers “Minuszahlen” instead of “negative Zahlen”, not understanding the difference between a property (negative) and an operation (minus, i.e. mapping a number onto its additive inverse). It’s kind of funny that American(?) math educators confused it the other way around, probably in a (futile) attempt to teach their studends exactly this, and managed to establish their confusion as the new (and irrefutable) wisdom by spreading it over 600000 YouTube videos. At least that’s were I, for the first time in my live, came across this it.

  3. Hi,
    How about old nursery rhymes for reinforcing basic statistics of data sets

    Even if they are sung badly

    Steve R

  4. OK, a note to everyone: I’m sick of the YouTube videos.

    Yes, I invited such responses by introducing the discussion with a clip, but in general it’s tiring. It’s a cheap laugh rather than thinking how to combine words into meaningful sentences.

    Everyone is on notice.

  5. Gimmicks are mostly fine, even positive, but not a silver bullet.

    Similarly analogies and explanations are not silver bullets. Something I often fight with the theory crowd, that dismisses drill and looks for “enzymatic” (lock and key molecules) solutions to common errors (e.g. linearizing), when the answer is really corrective drill (since the explanation has already been made). The problem is that they think axiomatically (which is math itself), but not pedagogically…which is dog training. We are smarter dogs. We are not rule based silicon systems, that do programs flawlessly, with one showing.

    But I digress…

  6. I believe having gimmicks is down to teachers’ ability to use and create them successfully. I am not against them, as using them might help to revive the audience. However, one should be careful not to make a circus out of the classroom. One should clearly know what they are trying to achieve using gimmicks; otherwise, a lesson might descend into a show.

  7. Hi,

    I think gimmicks or pneumonics or phrases are useful when they trigger the right side of the brain for memory recall.

    Some people can memorise the order
    Of a deck of cards or places of pi by visual links for example. The visual techniques using colour or images etc that they use can be useful even if the examples above are not.

    The nursery rhyme I was first exposed to in junior school is never forgotten

    Steve R

  8. Are gimmicks biased more towards entertainment or towards education? Are they mutually exclusive or are they complementary? What does one do when the finite supply of gimmicks is inevitably exhausted, both literally and emotionally? In amongst all of this, authenticity is important.

  9. No gimmicks here Marty,

    Just methods, examples, problems, applications and extensions with a tinge of proof. I dropped the jokes and tricks

    Talking about no gimmicks:

    News out of the US with a “new” maths education group that seems to have a distinct leaning towards explicit instruction learning. And it’s got some weight behind it:

    And even better; Jo Boaler disapproves of it

    You may well have heard of this already but it was welcome news to me


    Simon T

    1. Thanks, Simon. Yeah, I saw SoM through Ashman. Anything that pisses of Boaler is worthwhile, of course. And I guess people proving that the Earth is round is a good thing. But I find it hard to be thrilled.

      1. Yes I’m sure that SoM won’t cause the education world to instantly change. But any dissent from the current edubabble is good. I sometimes feel like we’re only a step above hugging maths book to one’s chest (so that learning can occur osmotically)

  10. What is meant by the word “gimmick”? One on-line dictionary defines it as “something that is not serious or of real value that is used to attract people’s attention”.

    Is showing students a video in a mathematics lesson likely to be a gimmick?

    Is getting students to play an on-line competitive game such as Kahoot! a gimmick?

    1. Here is a definition I found: “In educational terms then, we will define gimmicks as tricks or devices intended to attract students’ attention in the hope that they will become better behaved or more motivated to work hard.”

  11. Hi bloggers,

    Do you think Rubik’s Cubes and Klein Bottles for example fall under the category of gimmicks or useful props?

    Both have been used for many years to attract new undergraduates to Pure Mathematics at Open Days
    at a certain large Melbourne Tertiary Institution . They appear to be better than totebags etc at attracting interest

    Rubik’s cubes can give an insight into Group Theory and have a large cardinality

    With “god’s number” currently being around 20 for maximum number of moves to solve


    Klein bottles appear to attract attention too with applications in topology IMO


    Steve R

  12. Eddie Woo seems not to use gimmicks. Chalk and talk only … if we regard white board markers as chalk.

    1. Correct. It’d be nice if he’d point that out to people, but Smilin’ Eddie wouldn’t want to risk pissing anyone off.

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