Halloween Math (in global perspective)

One of the benefits of blogging for more than a year is that my post about Halloween from last year is still relevant. That post describes what it’s like on Club Boulevard in Durham, NC, where people who live on that street get upwards of one thousand (!) trick-or-treaters. Click the link — I’m not exaggerating.

We live just off of Club Blvd, which means far fewer trick-or-treaters for us.  Tonight, for example, we had a grand total of seven trick-or-treaters, up from one last year 🙂

I just did some quick research and learned that this year, per capita spending on Halloween has gone up by 9 percent from last year, and with a population increase, that means that total Halloween spending went up 18% to nearly seven billion dollars (up from 5.8 billion last year).

Those numbers seem quite large — but let’s get some perspective. Here’s a recent article from the Boston Globe that cautions Santa to look out for Halloween’s 18% growth rate.

Holiday retail sales, for Christmas and other winter holidays, are expected to rise only 2.8 percent over last year, according to the National Retail Federation (although overall Christmas spending remains much larger, over $400 billion).

So how big is $400 billion? How can we put that number in perspective?  And before we do, let’s make sure that figure is accurate.

One source, The Consumerist, says that “Overall, Halloween beats out Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and Easter, and is only outdone by Christmas when it comes to total spending.”

But this other source, IBIS World, says that Halloween spending trails Thanksgiving and Easter (and a bunch of other holidays):

So now we have some interesting research we need to do.  Christmas does not seem to be $400 billion — in fact, total holiday spending of the seven holidays listed above — is just over $200 billion.

This is where a real math assignment should begin — with research that students need to do first, so they can figure out what’s going on. We make a mistake, I think, by presenting students with math problems where all the numbers are given.

As math teacher Dan Meyer puts it in his terrific 12-minute TED Talk,

… ask yourself, what problem have you solved, ever, that was worth solving, where you knew all of the given information in advance, or where you didn’t have a surplus of information and you had to filter it out, or where you didn’t have sufficient information and you had to go find some. I’m sure we all agree that no problem worth solving is like that.

If our problem is putting holiday spending in perspective, I’m pretty sure that Christmas is number one, and I would be shocked if Thanksgiving is not number two (how much does an average Thanksgiving Dinner cost? Do Thanksgiving and Christmas include travel expenses?). But now we’ve expanded a “math problem” to a sociological study of what holidays Americans value most.

We can do the basic math, complete with graphs and charts and percentages. But when we start to get some overall perspective, and start to think about the economy as a whole, that’s when things get really interesting.

According to this article from Business Insider, the US GDP is $14.7 trillion and total holiday spending is $504 billion:

We now know enough — from just a few minutes of research — to ask what is meant by “holiday” spending, and we can debate that $504 billion figure. But the GDP figure of $14.7 trillion is one that economists throw around pretty reliably these days.

What is GDP? If middle or high school students don’t know (and most of them don’t), we should use Halloween spending as a “hook” to teach them about our economy. And to teach them about where we fit in the world (graph below is from Wikipedia’s GDP page)

So yes, $6.8 billion on Halloween does seem excessive, especially when you consider that we spend less than that on the entire Presidential campaign ($1.8 billion was spent in 2008, up from about half that in 2004).

One of the first units we’ll do at the school I’m opening in 2013 will be to look at big numbers — millions, billions and trillions — as well as small numbers on the nano scale. To understand our world, students have to have some perspective.

And to get back to the problem I posed earlier — how big is 400 billion?  I’m not sure of the best way to help middle school students conceptualize that.

Here’s a good starting point, from the Mega Penny Project:

But the beauty of this project — putting big and small numbers into perspective — is that there is no “right” answer — it’s a real problem. How do we conceptualize very large and very small numbers in a world that now has about seven billion people?

It’s a problem worth wrestling with. I am convinced that students, if given two hours a day of class time for four weeks to work on this problem, could come up with a fantastic solution. And I’m further convinced that such a project — referred back to throughout the three years of my school — would solidify for students a sense of global, scientific, and mathematic perspective.

Oh — and one more thing… Happy Halloween!

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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