A Star Wars Tomatometer Story

I wrote this post two years ago but decided against hitting publish. With the final film in the “Skywalker saga” opening next week, now is as good a time as any. And yes, we have tickets!

Like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my daughters and I saw The Last Jedi on opening night. It’s become a bit of a Hunter holiday tradition. Gwyneth loves the stories; Keira loves the Porgs. As much as the movies themselves, Gwyneth loves watching and discussing YouTubers’ takes on them — reactions, explanations, theories. She shared this one from New Rockstars with me, which begins with this:

“… Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the most polarizing film of the year, with one of the biggest gaps between critics ratings and audience scores for a major film ever. What the hell is going on here? Why are some people so annoyed with it, saying it ruined what made the original trilogy and The Force Awakens so good? Why are others fanboy crushing so hard over it, calling it the best Star Wars film ever made?”

New Rockstars

This reminded me of another passion of mine: the fundamental meanings of the operations. More specifically, subtraction as difference/comparison rather than take away/removal.

Here are the Rotten Tomatoes scores for The Force Awakens:

Tomatometer -- Episode VIII

Episode I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | Rogue One | What is the Tomatometer?

What’s the meaning, in context, of 50 – 90?

We’re measuring the gap between the percentage of professional critics (“Tomatometer rating”) and Rotten Tomatoes users (“Audience Score”) who rate the movie positively. We’re talking comparison, not removal. There’s a difference of 40%. Moreover, the difference here is negative (albeit my minuend/subtrahend decision is kinda arbitrary). This means that The Last Jedi is far less favourable among moviegoers as a group than among professional movie critics. We can compare this gap with that of others in the Star Wars franchise:

Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) → 96 – 93 = +3
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) → 97 – 94 = +3
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) → 94 – 80 = +14
Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) → 59 – 55 = +4
Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) → 57 – 65 = -8
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) → 65 – 79 = -14
Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) → 88 – 93 = -5
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) → 85 – 87 = -2
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) → 50 – 90 = -40

Some patterns emerge. For example, all three films in the original trilogy received positive reviews from critics and audiences alike; all three are Certified Fresh. A greater percentage of Rotten Tomato users than critics liked A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi: Audience Score – Tomatometer rating > 0. The Force Awakens and Rogue One received similar positive reviews, again from critics and audiences alike. However, these recent movies rated a little lower among audiences than among critics: Audience Score – Tomatometer rating < 0.

We can use absolute value to measure agreement between the two groups. For A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, The Force Awakens, and Rogue One, |Audience Score − Tomatometer rating| ≤ 5. Rotten or fresh, there’s consensus. For The Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, |Audience Score − Tomatometer rating| = 14. Still, a relatively small difference of opinions.

The Last Jedi breaks this trend. Professional critics place it alongside fellow Disney films The Force Awakens and Rogue One. RT users score it lower than the prequels. Below Binks!

Movies may be more engaging than the usual contexts for integers — a diversion from temperatures and bank balances. Thinking about this data graphically may have more potential.


It’s very similar to my take on the food graph, with movie critics in place of nutritionists in the role of expert. Gwyneth played along as I asked “What’s going on in this graph?”. We predicted where some of our favourite movies would land. We explained our reasoning. We compared our predictions with Rotten Tomato data. And then we shut down the laptop and rewatched The Empire Strikes Back.

The data for eight of these nine movies hasn’t changed much in two years. The outlier? Yep, The Last Jedi. The difference is now up to — or down to? — negative forty-eight (Audience Score: 43; Tomatometer rating: 91).

The New York Times’ “What’s Going On in This Graph?”

The “Numeracy Helping Teacher” part of my job immerses me in things related to the teaching and learning of mathematics. I’m comfortable in that space. The “Curriculum, Innovation, and Priority Practices Helping Teacher (Guildford/Fleetwood)” part of my job? Not always.

It can be challenging to plan experiences that will be meaningful to English teachers and physical education teachers, to science teachers and French teachers, etc. One approach is to have teachers participate in a math activity, then wave my hands–magic!–and say “Of course, this strategy translates to your social studies classroom.” In fact, swap the two subjects in the previous sentence and you will accurately sum up much of my professional development experiences from early in my career. Turnabout is fair play?

A more promising approach is to find a colleague from another subject and talk pedagogy. Discuss similarities. Discuss differences. Several years ago, my literacy colleague Iain Fisher hipped me to The New York Times‘ “What’s Going On in This Picture?” feature. An evocative image is stripped of its caption and students discuss/write about what they see.


Later, the photo’s caption and story are revealed.

A child jumps on the waste products that are used to make poultry feed as she plays in a tannery at Hazaribagh in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Oct. 9, 2012. Luxury leather goods sold across the world are produced in a slum area of Bangladesh’s capital where workers, including children, are exposed to hazardous chemicals and often injured in horrific accidents, according to a study released on Oct. 9. None of the tanneries, packed cheek-by-jowl into Dhaka’s Hazaribagh neighborhood, treat their waste water, which contains animal flesh, sulphuric acid, chromium and lead, leaving it to spew into open gutters and eventually the city’s main river.

I connected this strategy to my teaching with three-act math tasks. In both, subtracting information adds perplexity. Central to this strategy, in English language arts or mathematics classrooms, was the shared belief that our students were, above all, curious. At a workshop for department heads from every department, we invited teachers to look closely at and interpret several photos that we selected from The Times‘ series. We invited them to notice and wonder. This activity was invaluable in tackling the challenge of talking big ideas and inquiry across all subjects. So I was very excited to see the announcement of a new monthly NYT feature: “What’s Going On in This Graph?”

I needed the activity before the first “WGOITGraph?” would be published so I created my own. I modelled the strategy using Dan Meyer’s “Canada Flushed” graph. Only I stripped it naked.

Flushed (Stripped)

I asked “What do you notice?” and recorded their noticings:

  • the blue line is more variable than the green
  • there are two lines: blue and green
  • there are large peaks and valleys

“What else?”:

  • the lines are more similar at the ends
  • the maximum points are evenly spaced (“periodic” even!)
  • the minimum values are decreasing
  • there are small spikes between the dips
  • the blue line is thicker than the green line

I asked “What do you wonder?” and recorded their wonderings:

  • ECG? Stock market?
  • is the scale of the x-axis seconds, minutes, hours, days? (“… because the x-axis is always time.” — Geoff Krall)
  • are the lines related? (Ha! Spurious correlations?)
  • what’s the y-axis?
  • what’s causing the peaks and valleys?

I gradually provided answers to some of their questions. “The lines are related. The green and blue lines represent two successive days, February 27 and 28. The horizontal axis is time of day from noon to six.”

I added a critical piece of information: “February… 2010.” That was enough for some to blurt out “Olympics!” or “Hockey!” I gave them time to talk at their tables. There was a natural transition to “What’s going on?” before I asked the question (just as there’s a natural transition from noticings to wonderings). You can read the graph’s story here.

In the second half, I invited one teacher at each table to try out the strategy. I provided these facilitators with a rough script (anticipated noticings and wonderings, what to reveal and when, the complete graph with all its bits and pieces). They shared the following stripped graph with their colleagues:

WGOITGraph? Sushi (Stripped)

“What do you notice?”

  • junk foods bottom left, healthy foods top right
  • there’s a diagonal line (or y = x)
  • some foods are farther away from this line than others
  • there are arrows pointing to two foods

It is key that participants notice the line as it implies two variables (that are largely similar). If what’s going on is just a measure of the healthiness of foods, a continuum (a.k.a. a number line) is all that is needed. A coordinate system is overkill. There were some related false starts here (e.g., fat, sugar). I encouraged facilitators to let that play out. Groups self-corrected. The arrows indicate where text boxes have been removed. Learners were told that they could choose to revisit the “stories” of these foods later.

“What do you wonder?”

Facilitators gradually provided answers to their group’s questions. For example, if participants were told that the y-axis represents the percent of nutritionists saying a food is healthy, they reasoned that the x-axis represents another group: the public (or all Americans).

“What’s going on in this graph?”

Groups revisited granola bars and quinoa. They discussed possible reasons for differences in opinions between nutritionists and the public. They noticed and wondered some more.

When planning, I considered slowly providing this information in a series of slides. To learn more about this approach, see Brian’s post.

On Monday, I was invited to Fraser Heights Secondary to be part of their professional development day. I chose to lead teachers through this activity. (Last week, I test drove it with Surrey Math Department Heads.) Teachers–from all departments–were engaged in the activity. Not because of the “real-world” context but because “we had to figure out what was going on.” A math activity.

My plan was to connect this activity to core and curricular competencies. Also, I wanted to ask teachers to consider where–in their discipline, in their practice–they could remove (and gradually provide) information. I wanted to ask teachers to consider where they could ask their students “What do you notice? What do you wonder? What’s going on?” I rushed that. “Never skip the close!” I hope that challenge didn’t come across as hand-waving.


Jenna Laib (@jennalaib) launched slowrevealgraphs.com!

Additional examples, discussed in BCAMT’s Vector 61(1)