“English class mixed with Math? Eww!” was the response I expected from my 8th graders as I planned to focus the class discussion on a graph from New York Times’ What’s Going On with This Graph” resource. The Times publishes a weekly graph and invites students to guess and explain the story behind it.
This week I selected a scatter plot which showed ‘consumption of fast food’ plotted against ‘national income’ of countries. I asked the students to observe the graph quietly for about a minute and jot down the thoughts and questions that came to their minds. I also asked them to think of an appropriate title which would fit the story that this graph was trying to tell.
As I drummed my fingers nervously, waiting for their audio buttons to flicker on and off, I had serious doubts whether the children would even engage with the exercise. I assumed that the all pervasive silos we use to divide up “subjects” in school would be the first stumbling block.
How thrilled I was when the first chat message popped up: “Pauper to Prince, Princess to Maid”! This cryptic phrase was Izzy’s attempt to explain the chart. She added “It’s a reverse UNO card - high income countries are slowly decreasing while lower income countries are increasing. The upper middle income countries drift between the two variables. Surprisingly, the US is lower in fast food sales.” I knew I had their attention - here was a math hating kid trying to explain a graph.
Hana commented that she noticed that as fast food sales went up, the country’s income increased. I immediately interjected and asked them to first identify the independent and dependent variables. Interestingly 3 of them all felt wealth was dependent on food sales.. I asked them to reflect on what they were saying. Fathima asked “Since when did everybody sell fast food?” - since that would explain how increased food sales drove up the national income. Then the penny dropped. “Wealth is the independent variable here!” they all messaged.
By now some kids were starting to feel the heat “I don’t understand this kind of a graph.” Not surprising - they haven’t’ encountered scatter plots before. But the complexity of the graphy didn’t deter the kids- they kept going. Ziya noticed that higher income countries had lower fast food sales. Fathima popped out of her shell to make an incisive observation “Percents?” She noticed that the axis were labelled in percents. Not absolute numbers. And that they were “plus & minus” percents. Afwan observed that the axis showed how fast the variables were changing. Good catch that!
I asked them to think about what was happening with Greece. They saw how as its wealth had decreased, so had the fast food sales. I told them how Greece had faced economic difficulties in the recent decade. Izzy guessed that they probably ate yogurt - and other healthy stuff. I asked them “What question should you be asking about Greece? And all the rest when you see the change.Do you think Greeks are eating more healthy stuff than Indians?” They tentatively agreed. Wasn’t that what the graph was showing? “Rich countries do not eat that much fast food!” said Afwan. The idea that the graph measured percentage changes and not absolute numbers came as a surprise to the children. It was a difficult concept to get their heads around. That Greece’s consumption of fast food could possibly be greater in sheer metric tonnes (or whatever is used to measure fast food consumption) than India’s despite Greece being in the IVth quadrant.
I asked them to share their thoughts about which countries intrigued them. “Morocco” said one. “It’s straight on the Y-Axis - its income hasn’t changed at all. But its consumption of fast food has gone up.” Ibrahim observed that possibly the US has got oversaturated on fast food - hence its percentage change is lower. Afwan found Argentina interesting - with a small increase in income, their consumption of fast food has shot up. Hasna noticed the UAE - a rich country where the consumption of fast food has increased disproportionately to the change in income. “Too many tourists?” hazarded Afwan trying to explain the anomaly. Someone said Philippines was interesting - its income growth was commensurate with the increase in fast food consumption. “It is the opposite of Morocco” said Hana. “So is China.”, I observed.
I asked them if they could think of factors other than income which could be driving up the fast food sales in some countries.”More demand because of more population?” stated Afwan. “They want to be like the US?” guessed Sana. Which led to an interesting discussion on aspirations - how consumption of American style fast food is regarded as a status symbol in some countries.
“India has had high fast food sales for some time now. You see ladies selling idlis by the roadside everywhere. Does the graph reflect that?” I asked. This was an unanticipated googly. They didn’t think of idlis and dosas as fast food. “Does Sangeetha serve you fast food? Murugan Idli Kadai - which gets the dish to your table within 5 minutes. Is that fast food?” “No…. because it tastes like home food.” said Izzy. “It has to be unhealthy to be fast food.” said Afwan. “Yes. More carbohydrates, more it fits into fast food category” mused Hana. I almost burst out laughing “Here we are trying to come up with a definition of fast food at the very end of the class. We used unstated assumptions for this entire discussion!”
“This was a pretty interesting class!” observed Sana, the math hater.
I concur. The class was very interesting but not for the reasons Sana thought so. To me, as an educator, it reiterated the Al Qamar philosophy that teaching and learning has to be both interdisciplinary, application oriented and interesting. An English class around a Math graph which combined Economics with Nutrition was just that. Moreover, children could relate to the concept being discussed - as pre-teens, I’m sure “junk food” figures high on their list of favourite dishes. To have that analysed in the context of national income, modern lifestyle diseases helped them to stretch their thinking. We could slip in application of percentages, quadrants and origin in graphs, negative numbers, rates of change, and a gentle hint about 45o slopes along with obesity, women entering the workforce, Turkey’s economic aid to Greece and a discussion on cultural assumptions on what really is fast food.
Will this “fusion” teaching provide an answer to the problem of the disconnect and alienation children feel about school learning?
(The graph was from this article which appeared in the New York Times on 2nd October 2017)