Sometimes a seemingly throwaway question can lead to a surprisingly engaging bit of problem solving. Last week one of my Y10 students asked how many cakes she had eaten in her life. We didn’t have enough time to try to answer that in the few minutes remaining in that particular lesson, so we gave it a go today.

I started by asking the class how many cakes they had eaten in their lives, but I explained that I wasn’t worried about an answer at that stage, I just wanted them to talk about how they would work it out. They had some good suggestions, which we discussed.

I then asked the students to choose some questions like this to answer for themselves. It didn’t have to be about cake – or even about food. I waved an old newspaper article at them for a bit of inspiration, but I said I was unconvinced by some of the claims in the article. For example the article’s headline stated the average person will suffer around 6000 illnesses in a lifetime – which is more than one per week for someone who lives to be 90. I challenged the students to do better than this: could they justify their answers so that other people would be convinced?

The students quickly started generating their own questions. How many haircuts had they had in their lives? How many hours had they spent on the X-box? How many cups of coffee had they drunk? One enterprising student even decided to work out how many times his friend had annoyed Ms Lindemann. (Answer: not nearly as many as he thinks.)

By the end of the lesson the students had engaged in some surprisingly complex calculations – and got some surprising answers. Although they had shown working, their methods were not always entirely clear, so I want to encourage them to do some re-drafting to improve on this, but I want to do this in an engaging way.

I’m planning a follow up task in which the students create infograms to show their results. Since a good infogram needs some explanatory text, suitable graphics and clear data, I’m hoping that this will provide a good format to support the students in communicating their ideas clearly. I’m also intending to ask them to show how they arrived at their answers.

Have you worked with students to create infograms? If so, I’d be grateful if you shared any advice you have, it will be the first time I’ve tried this. I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Photo credit: **Anniversary Cakes by Graham White on Flickr**. Used under Creative Commons Licence*

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