Seven Purple Cows

Purple CowIn his book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, Seth Godin, a marketing expert, argues that advertising is less effective than it used to be because we are bombarded by adverts – which we tend to ignore. His solution is to have an amazing product – a purple cow in a field of black and white cows, so that it stands out and really captures the imagination.

In his presentation at TM Bett 14, Julian Wood suggested that something similar could be done in our classrooms. That got me thinking. Which of my lessons stand out and grab the students attention?

Here are some activities that fit that description: seven purple cows, some maths activities with a bit of wow. All of them are low-tech, but they have all engaged a wide variety of learners. I’ve linked to all the resources, so if you would like to try any of these, please help yourself.

1. International bingo

This started off as an activity for the annual European Day of Languages, but I’ve used it on plenty of other occasions too. It combines a BODMAS/BIDMAS (or PEMDAS for those on the other side of the pond) bingo with a foreign language. We learn to count to 10, then use the numbers to play a game.

It’s good fun and students from Y6 to Y13 have all enjoyed playing. I’ve blogged about this before, all the instructions and resources are here.

2. Catch a thief

I created this lesson when working with science and technology teachers on a STEM project.  Our Y7 students were not able to measure accurately, so we needed to practise.

The scenario is a bit silly: there has been a theft of rare and valuable triangles. Disaster! Fortunately the dastardly thief has left a few clues behind: a handprint and a footprint have been found and a shadowy figure was seen slipping away. Inspector Remorse rounds up the usual suspects. I give students an evidence file with pictures of hands and feet (life size) which they measure with a ruler. There also pictures of the suspects standing next to a metre ruler (mounted 1m from the floor) to allow them to work out each person’s height.

The students work in teams to collect measurements. After a while, the forensic report arrives and students have to identify the guilty party. It’s a bit daft, but I’ve used this with a variety of y6 and Y7 classes. They have all got really involved. The aims were to practise measuring in a fun way and to discuss practical difficulties which they encountered, which is exactly what happens. And since it’s a slightly comic-book sort of scenario, we have a Scooby Doo ending, which always goes down well.

All the resources are here. Some of the pictures are a tad pixelated, but since students never seem to notice, I haven’t felt the need to spend a lot of time redrawing them.

3. Climb through a postcard

I like to hand students a postcard or a small piece of paper and nonchalantly ask them to cut a hole in the paper and climb through it.

No, it isn’t impossible – but they don’t usually manage it without help.

  1. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half.
  2. Make cuts like this – but DON’T cut right to the edges -look carefully at the lines!
  3. Now cut along the fold (where the red line is) – but DON’T go right to the edges or you’ll just have a heap of scrap paper!
  4. Open out the paper and amaze everyone by climbing through the middle of it 🙂

This is a nice way to consider area vs perimeter – finding the perimeter of the holes they cut can get quite competitive.

My Y8 group fitted more than 60 students through a sheet of A4 paper last year. We are going to try to claim a World Record on Can you do better?

4. Mӧbius strip

In my opinion, the Mӧbius strip is the second weirdest thing in the known universe. (The weirdest thing? That would be a Klein bottle.)

It’s surprisingly easy to make a Mӧbius strip, just take a strip of paper, give it half a twist and make a loop. Full instructions are here.

Why is that so weird? It’s a 3D object with a single face and a single edge. Not convinced? Try these tests:

  1. Use your pen or pencil to colour the edge of your Möbius Strip. Can you colour the entire edge with removing the pen?
  2. Try drawing a line along the middle of the strip of paper. What happens?
  3. Finally, use your scissors to cut the Möbius Strip along the centre line that you drew. What happens?
    You could repeat the process by drawing a new line and cutting along that too. It might not turn out as you expect it to!

This could be the starting point for some investigating – what happens if you have a full twist? or 1.5 twists? Or if you join two strips together?

It’s also a nice way to discuss some key words: an object with a single face and edge provides a memorable way to reinforce that vocabulary.

5. Magic trick
  1. Think of a digit between 1 and 9. And another. And another. You now have a 3 digit number. Reverse the digits and subtract the smaller number from the larger one.
    E.g. 983 – 389 = 594
  2. Now reverse the digits in your answer and add your numbers together.
    E.g. 594 + 495 = 1089
  3. Being a good mathemagician you will have hidden the answer 1089 somewhere before you started the trick (I use a magic hat), so wave the magic ruler, say the magic words and reveal the answer.

Magic? Or Maths? Does it always work? I challenge my students to find out.

This trick always leads to subtractions that involve borrowing and additions that involve carrying, so it’s a nice way to turn some mundane arithmetic practice into something engaging. Since they will keep getting the same answer (unless they change the rules), it is also a self-checking task.

6. Easter egg hunt

I’ve run an Easter egg hunt in a variety of formats. The simplest involves printing puzzles onto brightly coloured paper with an Easter egg image in the background and then ‘hiding’ these around school. The problems may involve work from the maths curriculum, other subjects or logical thinking.

I’ve blogged about this before, the original post and some resources are here.

7. Maths trail

Even the most mundane building can provide some surprisingly rich opportunities for maths:

  • shapes in the building itself
  • patterns of numbers on doors or lockers
  • patterns of tiles or paving slabs
  • interesting objects
  • dates on certificates or displays…

At my school, we used a maths trail as part of our maths transition work, enabling us to explore the school site whilst doing some interesting maths. We did this with mixed ability form groups, so I included some Einstein questions to stretch the most able. This trail is linked to a specific set of school buildings, but it might give you some ideas. The trail, lesson plan etc that we used are all here.



If I’m lucky enough to be chosen to speak, I’ll be presenting these ideas at TeachMeet Sheffield tonight. Seven purple cows in seven minutes may be pushing it, but let’s give it a go. 🙂


Image Credit: Purple Cow by Jon Milet Baker on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Licence

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53 + = 63