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Secrets of Good Lessons

Make the Familiar Strange or the Strange Familiar

Before one can teach anything, one must have a student's attention and willingness to become involved in the learning process.  I have found the best way to get these is to present something familiar in a strange way, or something strange in a familiar way. Doing so sets up a sort of psychological dissonance.  In the back of their minds, students perceive something out of order and are compelled to try to make it right.

Thus if a group is ready to learn about weights and measures, instead of giving them a table to memorize, begin with a question like, "Which do you think is worth more, a pile of pennies equal to your weight, or a stack of quarters equal to your height?".  Students who are familiar with pocket change will start thinking about such a question because it seems so simple.  However, using coins to measure human weight and height is a bit strange.  Their first inclination will be to guess, but if you require them to support their answers (by asking an additional question like "By how much?"), they'll soon realize that they need more information. You'll undoubtedly hear questions like, "How much does a penny weigh?" and "How thick is a quarter?".  You can answer them, or show them how/where to get the answers.  In any event I'll bet that you end up with a lively discussion and many involved students.  Afterwards, if you want, you can make the transition to that table.  Click here for more on this activity.

Another way to juxtapose the strange and familiar is by using metaphor.  SES Associates spent decades developing materials that encourage students at all grade levels to explore science, history, language, and art by involving them in metaphor.  Here, adapted from SES' Strange & Familiar, are three questions and a problem for which students are to prepare written answers explaining their choices.

By the way, if you are wondering how to go about answering that question about pennies and quarters, here are some resources that will help.

look at the U.S. Mint's specifications on circulating coins
review the 2002 Guidebook of U.S. Coins by R.S. Yeoman

Excel 97 version (coins97.xls)
Excel 5/95 version (coins95.xls)

Click here to view a GIF image of the spreadsheet running under Excel 97
To return to this page after you finish viewing the GIF image, close the separate browser window that contains the image.

I've put a version of this file online as a Google Spreadsheet. You can work with it at

Click here for manual calculation instructions.  If calculations like these are too much for your students, urge them to think about and discuss how one would go about solving a problem like this, and what information they'd need to do so. lesson ideas that illustrate this principle

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original web posting: Tuesday, August 10, 1998
last modified: Sunday, June 16, 2013