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Saskatoon math teacher wins international award with dice

Click to play video: 'Winner of the Rosenthal Prize, Nat Banting' Winner of the Rosenthal Prize, Nat Banting
Winner of the Rosenthal Prize, Nat Banting – Jan 15, 2020

A Saskatoon teacher has been named the winner of an international award for his engaging math lesson on probability using dice.

Nat Banting is also the first Canadian to win the Rosenthal Prize for innovation and inspiration in math teaching. It’s designed to recognize and promote hands-on math teaching in upper elementary and middle school classrooms and carries a cash award of $25,000.

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He officially received the 2019 award at a gala at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York last week.

The teacher won for his lesson plan called Dice Auction: Putting Outcomes of the Dice Up for Sale. In his lesson, students are engaged to test their intuitive probabilistic reasoning of dice throws, based on the sum of resulting numbers of two die, with an auction.

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“I wanted to kind of build up the density with the decisions and the risk that they had to deal with so I took 15 possibilities and I put them on an auction block similar to how you would might put 15 pieces of art at an art auction,” he said on Wednesday.

“Then I gave each group of students 100 units of currency and asked them to bid against each other to choose the auctions that they think are the most valuable.

“What that does is it puts way more information into the probability. Things like ‘is the auction hot right now?’ ‘Are people spending a lot of money on certain things?’ ‘What was a similar outcome that maybe went for a little bit? Maybe that sets the fair price. ‘Who has money that can buy the really expensive ones?’ Similar to what you’d have in a regular market.”

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After bets are placed, the dice are then rolled and the students that bet on the most frequent outcomes win.

“After the dust settles on that, everyone kind of has their events that they’re hoping for. I roll the dice 20 times and every time something they purchase comes up, they get that dividend from it. It provides an opportunity to put the decision-making in kids’ hands and say, ‘what do we want?’” Banting said.

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“From that, you generate a lot of that personalization and engagement with the task. In the end, you see the kids aren’t competing against each other as much as they’re competing for that fair deal or that good deal. Which is something I think as adults we pursue as well, like as we just came through Boxing Day and Black Friday and these kind of feelings… we kind of put those into the math class a little bit.”

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Banting said his focus is to increase the amount of decision-making the student has to make.

“If school, especially math teaching, were to make one quick change as to kind of put those decisions in students hands, typically they’ve been held by the teacher and we kind of dole out those decisions very slowly and methodically,” he said.

“If we allow students to make decisions for you, they can surprise you. And your job is to kind of observe their thinking and see where it’s going and push and kind of pull along the way.”

Banting’s teachings have also been recognized nationally with him being named the recipient of the 2019 Margaret Sinclair Memorial Award.

This one is given for “advancing the possibility of the mathematics classroom as a space for mathematical thinking and appreciation, and also for modelling a wider innovative possibility — that of the teacher in a digital age.”

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He’ll receive the other award from Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences at the University of Toronto on Feb. 29. It includes a $5,000 prize.

Banting is currently on leave from the Saskatoon Public Schools division as a lecturer in the University of Saskatchewan College of Education’s department of curriculum studies.

He holds a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of Alberta.

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