Steven Strogatz talking about feeling dumb for not solving something fast! Saturday, Aug 22 2015 

Just catching up on some blog reading and came (via Sue) across Steven Strogatz writing about training to use inquiry-based learning in his class for the first time and feeling embarrassed when he couldn’t solve something as fast as his colleagues! This kind of narrative is so valuable. Our students need to know it’s not just them!

Some work I’m proud of / don’t sleep on the Divergents Friday, Aug 14 2015 

I saw Divergent last year. I love talking about movies but I’m suppressing that impulse because it’s beside the point. The point is the central metaphor – “divergents” – people who don’t fit in one of the nice boxes. Don’t sleep on those folks. While you are dismissing somebody because they don’t fit your image of “good student” or “smart person” or whatever, they are busy taking over the universe.

I tutored a girl T a while back. A 3rd grader and a middle sibling of three. In the narrative her family passed on to me, she’s getting by in math class but math is harder for her than her siblings; she’s not as “quick.” All I have to say is that “quick” is not what it’s all about.

Here is a story from our work together, illustrating both
a) What my some of my best work looks like – how to get somebody to an ambitious result without any cognitive theft, how to utilize legitimate uncertainty to cultivate curiosity – and also
b) Some awesome mathematical thinking that doesn’t look like the stereotype. Not “quick” but something much deeper and richer. My dude T might not fit somebody’s image of the math whiz, but I am telling you, do not sleep on this kid.

At a previous session, I had asked T what she knew about multiplication, and she had told me, among other things, that 4\times 6 is four sixes, and because that’s 24, she also knew that six fours would be 24. I asked why she said so and she didn’t know why. I asked her if she thought this would always be true for bigger numbers, or could it be possible that there were some big numbers like 30,001 and 5,775 for which 30,001 5775’s was different than 5,775 30,001’s. She wasn’t sure. I asked her if she thought it was a good question and she said she thought it was.

So this session I reminded her of this conversation. I forget the details of how we got going on it; I remember inviting her to wonder about the question and note that there is something surprising about the equality between four sixes and six fours. She could count up to 24 by 4’s and by 6’s and mostly you hit different numbers on the way up, so why do the answers match? And would it be true for any pair of numbers? But the place where I really remember the conversation is when we started to get into the nuts and bolts:

Me: Maybe to help study it we should try to visualize it. Can you draw a picture of four sixes?

T draws this –

Tessa 4 6's cropped

Me: Cool! Okay I have a very interesting question for you. You know how many dots are here –

T: 24 –

Me: and you also told me that six 4’s is also 24, right?

T: yes.

Me: – so that means that there must be six 4’s in this picture! Can you find them?

T: I don’t understand.

Me: You drew a picture of four 6’s here, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: And that’s 24 dots, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: And you told me before that 24 is also six 4’s, yes?

T: Yes.

Me: So it must be that right here in this picture there are six 4’s!

[It clicks.] T: Yes!

Me: See if you can find them!

At this point, I go wash my hands. An essential tool that has developed in my tutoring practice is to give the student the social space to feel not-watched while they work on something requiring a little creativity or mental looseness, or just anything where the student needs to relax and sink into the problem or question. The feeling of being watched, even by a benevolent helper adult, is inhibitive for generating thoughts. Trips to wash hands or to the bathroom are a great excuse, and I can come back and watch for a minute before I make a decision about whether to alert the student to my return. I also often just look out the window and pretend to be lost in thought. Anyway, on this particular occasion, when I come back, T has drawn this:

Tess 4 6's recircled cropped

T: I found them, but it’s not… It doesn’t…

I am interrupting because I have to make sure you notice how rad she’s being. The child has a sense of mathematical aesthetics! The partition into six 4’s is uglifying a pretty picture; breaking up the symmetry it had before. It’s a kind of a truth, but she isn’t satisfied with it. She senses that there is a more elegant and more revealing truth out there.

This sense of taste is the device that allows the lesson to move forward without me doing the work for her. Her displeasure with this picture is like a wall we can pivot off of to get somewhere awesome. Watch:

Me: I totally know what you mean. It’s there but it doesn’t feel quite natural. The picture doesn’t really want to show the six 4’s.

T: Yeah.

Me: You know what though. You had a lot of choice in how you drew the four 6’s at the beginning. You chose to do it this way, with the two rows of three plus two rows of three and like that. Maybe you could make some other choice of how to draw four 6’s that would also show the six 4’s more clearly? What do you think? You wanna try to find something like that?

T: Yes! [She is totally in.]

At this point I go to the bathroom. I hang out in the hall for a bit when I get back because she seems to still be drawing. Finally,

Me: Did you find out anything?

T: I drew it a lot of different ways, but none of them show me the six 4’s…

She’s got six or seven pictures. One of them is this –

4x6 cropped

Me: Hey wait I think I can see it in this one! (T: Really??) But I can’t tell because I think you might be missing one but I’m not sure because I can’t see if they are all the same.

T immediately starts redrawing the picture, putting one x in each column, carefully lined up horizontally, and then a second x in each column. As she starts to put a third x in the first column, like this,

neat one cropped

she gasps. Then she slides her eyes sideways to me, and with a mischievous smile, adds this to her previous picture:

final cropped

The pieces just fell into place from there. Again I don’t remember the details, but I do remember I asked her what would happen with much bigger numbers – might 30,001 5,775’s and 5,775 30,001’s come out different? And she was able to say no, and why not. Commutativity of multiplication QED, snitches!

What’s the point here? Well, there are two. One is that I’m proud of this, and I’m excited to show you what I did that was awesome. So to that end I’ll highlight my (awesome ;) ) operating principles:

A) It was important that T did not know what the outcome would be, but wanted to know. She indicated at the beginning that she was familiar with multiplication’s commutativity (not in that language), but to cultivate uncertainty, I asked her if it would always be true (and she was legitimately unsure). To cultivate curiosity, I asked her if she thought it was a good question (and she did). This is the setup I was arguing for last time. If she hadn’t been unsure, or hadn’t been interested, I would have turned to a different question.

B) I was aiming to create a situation for T that directed her attention to profitable seams in the substrate of our inquiry without taking away any of her ownership over any of the important steps that led to the conclusion. Therefore, I was committed to not at any point drawing an array of dots. That picture had to be hers. And I was committed to not explaining how the array picture leads to the conclusion that a b’s is b a’s. That train of thought had to be hers. Finally, if she had come up with a different picture that revealed the six 4’s in a generalizeable way, that would have been just as good. My specific moves and choices were governed by the twin questions “what is really mathematically at stake here?” and “how can I utilize her curiosity to get her attention closer to it without visibly pointing it out?”

But the other point is that I want to show you what T did that was awesome. T is one of many, many students who get dismissed mathematically because they don’t produce fast and they don’t get right answers all the time. But she is not to be dismissed. Notice that no amount of speed or right answers would have served the function that T’s curiosity, interest in the question, and sense of mathematical aesthetics served. No amount of awesomeness from my end would have gotten her anywhere either. T is an eight year old who has proved a theorem about every one of the infinity of pairs of natural numbers. She didn’t do it with speed or accuracy, she did it with depth of engagement and her developing sense of whether ideas are fitting together snugly or awkwardly.

Don’t sleep on the Divergents.

Uhm sayin Saturday, Aug 1 2015 

Dan Meyer’s most recent post is about how in order to motivate proof you need doubt.

This is something I was repeatedly and inchoately hollering about five years ago.

As usual I’m grateful for Dan’s cultivated ability to land the point cleanly and actionably. Looking at my writing from 5 years ago – it’s some of my best stuff! totally follow those links! – but it’s long and heady, and not easy to extract the action plan. So, thanks Dan, for giving this point (which I really care about) wings.

I have one thing to add to Dan’s post! Nothing I haven’t said before but let’s see if I can make it pithy so it can fly too.

Dan writes that an approach to proof that cultivates doubt has several advantages:

  1. It motivates proof
  2. It lowers the threshold for participation in the proof act
  3. It allows students to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary of proof and the act of proving
  4. It makes proving easier

I think it makes proving not only easier but way, way easier, and I have something to say about how.

Legitimate uncertainty and the internal compass for rigor

Anybody who has ever tried to teach proof knows that the work of novice provers on problems of the form “prove X” is often spectacularly, shockingly illogical. The intermediate steps don’t follow from the givens, don’t imply the desired conclusion, and don’t relate to each other.

I believe this happens for an extremely simple reason. And it’s not that the kids are dumb.

It happens because the students’ work is unrelated to their own sense of the truth! You told them to prove X given Y. To them, X and Y look about equally true. Especially since the problem setup literally informed them that both are true. Everything else in sight looks about equally true too.

There is no gradient of confidence anywhere. Thus they have no purchase on the geography of the truth. They are in a flat, featureless wilderness where all the directions look the same, and they have no compass. So they wander in haphazard zigzags! What the eff else can they do??

The situation is utterly different if there is any legitimate uncertainty in the room. Legitimate uncertainty is an amazing, magical, powerful force in a math classroom. When you don’t know and really want to know, directions of inquiry automatically get magnetized for you along gradients of confidence. You naturally take stock of what you know and use it to probe what you don’t know.

I call this the internal compass for rigor.

Everybody’s got one. The thing that distinguishes experienced provers is that we have spent a lot of time sensitizing ours and using it to guide us around the landscape of the truth, to the point where we can even feel it giving us a validity readout on logical arguments relating to things we already believe more or less completely. (This is why “prove X” is a productive type of exercise for a strong college math major or a graduate student, and why mathematicians agree that the twin prime conjecture hasn’t been proven yet even though everybody believes it.)

But novice provers don’t know how to feel that subtle tug yet. If you say “prove X” you are settling the truth question for them, and thereby severing their access to their internal compass for rigor.

Fortunately, the internal compass is capable of a much more powerful pull, and that’s when it’s actually giving you a readout on what to believe. Everybody can and does feel this pull. As soon as there’s something you don’t know and want to know, you feel it.

This means that often it’s enough merely to generate some legitimate mathematical uncertainty in the students, and some curiosity about it, and then just watch and wait. With maybe a couple judicious and well-thought-out hints at the ready if needed. But if the students resolve this legitimate uncertainty for themselves, well, then, they have probably more or less proven something. All you have to do is interview them about why they believe what they’ve concluded and you will hear something that sounds very much like a proof.

Hard Problems and Hints Friday, Jul 11 2014 

I have a friend O with a very mathematically engaged son J, who semi-often corresponds with me about his and J’s mathematical experiences together. We had a recent exchange and what I was saying to him I found myself wanting to say to everybody. So, without further ado, here is his email and my reply (my take on Aunt Pythia) –

Dear Ben,

J’s class is learning about volume in math. They’ll be working with cubes, rectangular prisms and possibly cylinders, but that’s all. He asked his teacher if he could work on a “challenge” that has been on his mind, which is to find a formula for the volume of one of his favorite shapes, the dodecahedron. He build a few of these out of paper earlier in the year and really was/is fascinated with them. I think he began this quest to find the volume thinking that it would be pretty much impossible, but he has stuck with it for almost a week now. I am pleased to see that he’s not only sticking with it, but also that he has made a few pretty interesting observations along the way, including coming up with an approach to solving it that involves, as he put it, “breaking it up into equal pieces of some simpler shape and then putting them together.” After trying a few ways to break/slice up the dodecahedron and finding that none of them seemed to make matters simpler, he had an “ah ha” moment in the car and decided that the way to do would be to break it up into 12 “pentagonal pyramids” (that’s what he calls them) that fit together, meeting at the center of rotation of the whole shape. If we can find the volume of one of those things, we’re all set. A few days later, he told me that he realized that “not every pentagonal pyramid could combine to make a dodecahedron” so maybe there was something special about the ones that do, i.e., maybe there is a special relationship between the length of the side of the pentagon and the length of the edge of the pyramid that could be used to form a dodecahedron.

He is still sticking with it, and seems to be having a grand time, so I am definitely going to encourage him and puzzle through it with him if he wants.

But here’s my question for you…

I sneaked a peak on google to see what the formula actually is, and found (as you might know) that it’s pretty complicated. The formula for the volume of the pentagonal pyramid involves \tan 54 (or something horrible like that) and the formula for the volume of a dodecahedron involves 15 + 7\sqrt{5} or something evil like that. In short, I am doubtful that he will actually be able to solve this problem he’s puzzling through. What does a good teacher do in such a situation? You have a student who is really interested in this problem, but you know that it’s far more likely that he will hit a wall (or many walls) that he really doesn’t have the tools to work through. On the other hand, you really want him to find satisfaction in the process and not measure the joy or the value of the process by whether he ultimately solves it.

I certainly don’t care whether he solves it or not. But I want to help him get value out of hitting the wall. How do you strike a balance so that the challenge is the right level of frustrating? When is it good to “give a hint” (you’ve done that for me a few times in what felt like a good way… not too much, but just enough so that the task was possible).

In this case, he’s at least trying to answer a question that has an answer. I suppose you could find a student working on a problem that you know has NO known answer, or that has been proven to be unsolvable. Although there, at least, after the student throws up his hands after giving it a good go, you can comfort her by saying, “guess what… you’re in good company!” But here, I’d like to help give him some of the tools he might use to actually make some headway, without giving away the store.

I think he’s off to a really good start — learning a lot along the way – getting a lot of out the process, the approach. I can already tell that many of the “ah ha” moments have applicability in all sorts of problems, so that’s wonderful.

Best, O

Dear O,

Wow, okay first of all, I love that you asked me this and it makes me really appreciate your role in this journey J is on, in other words I wish every child had an adult present in their mathematical journey who recognizes the value in their self-driven exploration and is interested in being the guardian of the child’s understanding of that value.

Second: no matter what happens, you have access to the “guess what… you’re in good company” response, because the experience of hitting walls as you try to find your way through the maze of the truth is literally the experience of all research mathematicians, nearly all of the time. If by any chance J ends up being a research mathematician, he will spend literally 99% or more of his working life in this state.

In fact, I would want to tweak the message a bit; I find the “guess what… you’re in good company” a tad consolation-prize-y (as also expressed by the fact that you described it as a “comfort”). It implies that there was an underlying defeat whose pain this message is designed to ameliorate. I want to encourage you and J both to see this situation as one in which a defeat is not even possible, because the goal is to deepen understanding, and that is definitely happening, regardless of the outcome. The specific question (“what’s the volume of a dodecahedron?”) is a tool that’s being used to give the mind focus and drive in exploring the jungle of mathematical reality, but the real value is the journey, not the answer to the question. The question is just a tool to help the mind focus.

In fairness, questing for a goal such as finding the answer to a question and then not meeting the goal is always a little disappointing, and I’m not trying to act like that disappointment can be escaped through some sort of mental jiu-jitsu. What I am trying to say is that it is possible to experience this disappointment as superficial, because the goal-quest is an exciting and focusing activity that expresses your curiosity, but the goal is not the container of the quest’s value.

So, that’s what you tell the kid. Way before they hit any walls. More than that, that’s how you should see it, and encourage them to see it that way by modeling.

Third. A hard thing about being in J’s position in life (speaking from experience) is that the excitement generated in adults by his mathematical interests and corresponding “advancement” is exciting and heady, but can have the negative impact of encouraging him to see the value of what he’s doing in terms of it making him awesome rather than the exploration itself being the awesome thing, and this puts him in the position where it is possible for an unsuccessful mathematical expedition to be very ego-challenging. This is something that’s been behind a lot of the conversations we’ve had, but I want to highlight it here, to connect the dots in the concrete situation we’re discussing. To the extent that there are adults invested in J’s mathematical precociousness per se, and to the extent that J may experience an unsuccessful quest as a major defeat, these two things are connected.

Fourth, to respond to your request for concrete advice regarding when it is a good idea to give a hint. Well, there is an art to this, but here are some basic principles:

* Hints that are minimally obtrusive allow the learner to preserve their sense of ownership over the final result. The big dangers with a hint are (a) that you steal the opportunity to learn by removing a part of the task that would have been important to the learning experience, and (b) that you steal the experience of success because the learner doesn’t feel like they really did it. These dangers are related but distinct.

* How do you give a minimally obtrusive hint?

(a) Hints that direct the learner’s attention to a potentially fruitful avenue of thought are superior to hints that are designed to give the learner a new tool.

(b) Hints that are designed to facilitate movement in the direction of thought the learner already has going on are generally better than hints that attempt to steer the learner in a completely new direction.

* If the learner does need a new tool, this should be addressed explicitly. It’s kind of disingenuous to think of it as a “hint” – looking up “hint” in the dictionary just now, I’m seeing words like “indirect / suggestion / covert indication”. If the learner is missing a key tool, they need something direct. The best scenario is if they can actually ask for what they need:

Learner: If I only had a way to find the length of this side using this angle…
Teacher: oh yes, there’s a whole body of techniques for that, it’s called trigonometry.

This is rare but that’s okay because it’s not necessary. If the teacher sees that the learner is up against the lack of a certain tool, they can also elicit the need for it from the learner:

Teacher: It seems like you’re stuck because you know this angle but you don’t know this side.
Learner: Yeah.
Teacher: What if I told you there was a whole body of techniques for that?

Okay, those are my four cents. Keep me posted on this journey, it sounds like a really rich learning experience for J.

All the best, Ben

Linda Darling-Hammond on the International Teaching Survey Thursday, Jul 3 2014 

Just wanted to make sure you didn’t miss Linda Darling-Hammond’s piece in the Huff Post on the results of the most recent Teaching and Learning International Survey.  This is real talk about the kinds of policies that actually improve teaching, backed up by some powerful international comparisons.  I want this to circulate widely.

Sue’s Book Is Ready for Press and Needs Crowdfunding! Friday, Jun 20 2014 

Hey y’all, I am incredibly excited about Sue’s book, Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. If you have been around the math education blogosphere for more than a short time, you probably are too.

It needs crowdfunding to cover publication costs. I am about to help out and I invite you to do so too!


Steven Strogatz on what math education often gets wrong Thursday, Apr 10 2014 

If you’re telling a student the answer to a question it would never occur to them to ask, I can’t see how that’s a productive use of anyone’s time.

(This is not verbatim, but it’s the idea.)

New Math Learning Site on Needs You Sunday, Mar 2 2014 

Hey y’all.

There’s a new proposal at for a Q&A site on Mathematics Learning, Studying, and Education.

Stack Exchange Q&A site proposal: Mathematics Learning, Studying, and Education

Of course the entire mathtwitterblogosphere is a massive Q&A site on Mathematics Learning, Studying, and Education. But based on my experience of the incredible usefulness of the StackExchange sites Math StackExchange and MathOverflow, I think this site could become a great resource.

Possibly also a great forum for some much-needed productive dialogue between the K-12 and collegiate levels. For that to happen, though, it needs you. The bulk of the folks currently signed up for the beta of the new site are active on Math StackExchange and MathOverflow, which are dominated by college-and-up level math. The conversation is going to be so much richer with serious K-12 representation! Go sign up!

If you haven’t heard of the StackExchange sites before, they are a very thoughtfully constructed Q&A structure. It all started with StackOverflow, which was for working programmers to ask and answer practical coding questions. MathOverflow copied this idea for working research mathematicians. Math StackExchange is in principle for Q&A about math at any level, although as I mentioned, in practice it’s usually (though not always) about college and graduate level. Now there are also StackExchange sites on cooking, gaming, English language learning, and a million other things. The design of the software, and the culture of the sites, do an impressive job keeping the Q&A productive and on topic.

In the case of the math sites, the culture can also feel a little normatively intense (as in, there’s a “way we do things” that can be pretty strongly policed) and not always welcoming. Denizens of the sites will tell you that this is how they keep the conversation so productive and on-topic. But imho, it also stems from the deep ambivalence that the academic math world has about whether it wants to

(A) Share all its goodies and invite everyone into its kingdom, or
(B) Bull-guard the considerable stash of privilege that accrues from its high intellectual status.

(More on this in future posts.) The incredible usefulness of the sites makes it worth it; but also, this is part of why I want you guys to go populate the new Math Education site. You are clear in your hearts that math is for everybody. This is our chance to go talk with some folks who represent a culture that is working through that for itself. Meanwhile, we get to benefit from their perspectives, which have seen very different parts of the mathematical kingdom in their travels.

Disclaimer: I think lots and lots of individuals on Math.SE and MO think math is for everybody. I am not trying to stereotype the sites or mathematicians more generally. And I think it’s likely that the people from Math.SE and MO who gravitate to the new Math Learning/Education site are going to be skewed toward the folks who think that math is for everybody. What I am trying to do is to name some notes that I hear in the cultural soundscape of academic math as a whole, and Math StackExchange and MathOverflow in particular; but I’m not trying to identify those notes with any individuals.

A Critical Language for Problem Design Saturday, Jan 18 2014 

I am at the Joint Mathematics Meetings this week. I had a conversation yesterday, with Cody L. Patterson, Yvonne Lai, and Aaron Hill, that was very exciting to me. Cody was proposing the development of what he called a “critical language of task design.”

This is an awesome idea.

But first, what does he mean?

He means giving (frankly, catchy) names to important attributes, types, and design principles, of mathematical tasks. I can best elucidate by example. Here are two words that Cody has coined in this connection, along with his definitions and illustrative examples.

Jamming – transitive verb. Posing a mathematical task in which the underlying concepts are essential, but the procedure cannot be used (e.g., due to insufficient information).

Example: you are teaching calculus. Your students have gotten good at differentiating polynomials using the power rule, but you have a sinking suspicion they have forgotten what the derivative is even really about. You give them a table like this

x f(x)
4 16
4.01 16.240901
4.1 18.491

and then ask for a reasonable estimate of f'(4). You are jamming the power rule because you’re giving them a problem that aims at the concept underlying the derivative and that cannot be solved with the power rule.

Thwarting – transitive verb. Posing a mathematical task in which mindless execution of the procedure is possible but likely to lead to a wrong answer.

Example: you are teaching area of simple plane figures. Your students have gotten good at area of parallelogram = base * height but you feel like they’re just going through the motions. You give them this parallelogram:
Of course they all try to find the area by 9\times 41. You are thwarting the thoughtless use of base * height because it gets the wrong answer in this case.

Why am I so into this? These are just two words, naming things that all teachers have probably done in some form or another without their ever having been named. They describe only a very tiny fraction of good tasks. What’s the big deal?

It’s that these words are a tiny beginning. We’re talking about a whole language of task design. I’m imagining having a conversation with a fellow educator, and having access to hundreds of different pedagogically powerful ideas like these, neatly packaged in catchy usable words. “I see you’re thwarting the quadratic formula pretty hard here, so I’m wondering if you want to balance it out with some splitting / smooshing / etc.” (I have no idea what those would mean but you get the idea.)

I have no doubt that a thoughtful, extensive and shared vocabulary of this kind would elevate our profession. It would be a concrete vehicle for the transmission and development of our shared expertise in designing mathematical experiences.

This notion has some antecedents.[1] First, there are the passes at articulating what makes a problem pedagogically valuable. On the math blogosphere, see discussions by Avery Pickford, Breedeen Murray, and Michael Pershan. (Edit 1/21: I knew Dan had one of these too.) I also would like to believe that there is a well-developed discussion on this topic in academic print journals, although I am unaware of it. (A google search turned up this methodologically odd but interesting-seeming article about biomed students. Is it the tip of the iceberg? Is anyone reading this acquainted with the relevant literature?)

Also, I know a few other actual words that fit into the category “specialized vocabulary to discuss math tasks and problems.” I forget where I first ran into the word problematic in this context – possibly in the work of Cathy Twomey-Fosnot and Math in the City – but that’s a great word. It means that the problem feels authentic and vital; the opposite of contrived. I also forget where I first heard the word grabby (synonymous with Pershan’s hooky, and not far from how Dan uses perplexing) to describe a math problem – maybe from the lips of Justin Lanier? But, once you know it it’s pretty indispensible. Jo Boaler, by way of Dan Meyer, has given us the equally indispensable pseudocontext. So, the ball is already rolling.

When Cody shared his ideas, Yvonne and I speculated that the folks responsible for the PCMI problem setsBowen Kerins and Darryl Yong, and their friends at the EDC – have some sort of internal shared vocabulary of problem design, since they are masters. They were giving a talk today, so I went, and asked this question. It wasn’t really the setting to get into it, but superficially it sounded like yes. For starters, the PCMI’s problem sets (if you are not familiar with them, click through the link above – you will not be sorry) all contain problems labeled important, neat and tough. “Important” means accessible, and also at the center of connections to many other problems. Darryl talked about the importance of making sure the “important” problems have a “low threshold, high ceiling” (a phrase I know I’ve heard before – anyone know where that comes from?). He said that Bowen talks about “arcs,” roughly meaning, mathematical themes that run through the problem sets, but I wanted to hear much more about that. Bowen, are you reading this? What else can you tell us?

Most of these words share with Cody’s coinages the quality of being catchy / natural-language-feeling. They are not jargony. In other words, they are inclusive rather than exclusive.[2] It is possible for me to imagine that they could become a shared vocabulary of our whole profession.

So now what I really want to ultimately happen is for a whole bunch of people (Cody, Yvonne, Bowen, you, me…) to put in some serious work and to write a book called A Critical Language for Mathematical Problem Design, that catalogues, organizes and elucidates a large and supple vocabulary to describe the design of mathematical problems and tasks. To get this out of the completely-idle-fantasy stage, can we do a little brainstorming in the comments? Let’s get a proof of concept going. What other concepts for thinking about task design can you describe and (jargonlessly) name?

I’m casting the net wide here. Cody’s “jamming” and “thwarting” are verbs describing ways that problems can interrupt the rote application of methods. “Problematic” and “grabby” are ways of describing desirable features of problems, while “pseudocontext” is a way to describe negative features. Bowen and Darryl’s “important/neat/tough” are ways to conceptualize a problem’s role in a whole problem set / course of instruction. I’m looking for any word that you could use, in any way, when discussing the design of math tasks. Got anything for me?

[1]In fairness, for all I know, somebody has written a book entitled A Critical Language for Mathematical Task Design. I doubt it, but just in case, feel free to get me a copy for my birthday.

[2]I am taking a perhaps-undeserved dig here at a number of in-many-ways-wonderful curriculum and instructional design initiatives that have a lot of rich and deep thought about pedagogy behind them but have really jargony names, such as Understanding by Design and Cognitively Guided Instruction. (To prove that an instructional design paradigm does not have to be jargony, consider Three-Acts.) I feel a bit ungenerous with this criticism, but I can’t completely shake the feeling that jargony names are a kind of exclusion: if you really wanted everybody to use your ideas, you would have given them a name you could imagine everybody saying.

Kids Summarizing Sunday, Sep 8 2013 

Back in the spring, I resolved to make a practice of having students summarize each others’ thoughts whenever I have classroom opportunities. This summer, I got the opportunity to give this technique a sustained go, when I taught at SPMPS (which was completely awesome btw). And:

It is an effing game-changer.

This summer, when I or a student put forth an idea, I regularly followed it with, “who can summarize what so-and-so said?” Or (even better), “so-and-so, can you summarize what so-and-so just said?” Following the models of Lucy West and Deborah Ball, I carefully distinguished summary from evaluation. “Not whether you buy it, just the idea itself.” When dipsticking the room on an idea, I would also make this distinction. “Raise your hand if you feel that you understand what was just said; not that you buy it, just that you understand what they’re trying to say.” Then, “leave your hand up if you also buy it.”

These moves completely transformed the way whole-class conversation felt to me:

* Students were perceptibly more engaged with each others’ ideas.
* The ideas felt more like community products.
* Students who were shy to venture an idea in the first place nonetheless played key roles as translators of others’ ideas.

Furthermore, for the first time I felt I had a reliable way past the impasse that happens when somebody is saying something rich and other people are not fully engaged. More generally, past the impasse that happens when somebody says something awesome and there are others for whom it doesn’t quite land. (Whether they were engaged or not.)

A snippet of remembered classroom dialogue to illustrate:

Me: The question before us is, do the primes end, or do they go on forever? At this point, does anybody think they know?

(Aside: This was after a day of work on the subject. Most kids didn’t see the whole picture at this point, but one did:)

[J raises his hand.]

J: They don’t end. If they ended, you’d have a list. You could multiply everything on the list and add 1 and you would get a big number N. Either N is prime or it’s composite. If it is prime, you can add it to the list. If it is composite, it has at least one prime factor. Its factor can’t be on the list because all the numbers on the list when divided [into] N have a remainder of 1. So you can add its factor to the list. You can keep doing this forever so they don’t end.

Me: Raise your hand to summarize J’s thought.

(Aside: although J has just basically given a complete version of Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of the primes, and although I am ecstatic about this, I can’t admit any of this because the burden of thought needs to stay with the kids. J is just about done with the question, but this is just the right thing, said once: the class as a whole is nowhere near done. This is one of the situations in which asking for summaries is so perfect.)

[Several kids raise their hands. I call on T.]

T: J is saying that the primes don’t end. He says this because if you have a list of all the primes, you can multiply them and add one, giving you a big number N. If N is prime, you can add it to the list. If N is not prime, and its prime factors are not on the list, you can add them.

Me: J, is that what you were trying to say?

J: Yes.

(Notice that a key point in J’s argument, that the factors of N cannot already be on the list, was not dealt with by T, and J did not catch this when asked if T had summarized his point. This is totally typical. Most kids in the room have not seen why this point is important. Some kids have probably not seen why J’s argument even relates to the question of whether the primes end. All this has to be given more engaged airtime.)

Me: raise your hand if you feel that you understand the idea that J put forth that T is summarizing.

[About 2/3 of the room raises hands. I raise mine too.]

Me: Leave your hand up if you also find the idea convincing and you now believe the primes don’t end.

[A few kids put their hands down. I put mine down too.]

N [to me]: Why did you put your hand down?

Me [to class]: Who else wants to know?

[At least half the class raises hands.]

Me [to T]: Here’s what’s bugging me. You said that if N is not prime and its prime factors are not on the list, I can add them. But what if N is not prime and its prime factors are already on the list?

T [thinks for a minute]: I don’t know, I’ll have to think more about that.

[J’s hand shoots up]

Me [to T]: Do you want to see what J has to say about that or do you want to think more about it first?

[T calls on J to speak]

J: Can’t happen. All the numbers on the list were multiplied together and added 1 to get N. So when N is divided by 2, 3, 5, and so on, it has a remainder of 1. So N’s factor can’t be 2, 3, 5, and so on.

T: Oh, yeah, he’s right.

Me: Can you summarize his whole thought?

[T explains the whole thing start to finish.]

Me: Do you buy it?

T: Yes.

Me: Who else wants to summarize the idea that J put forth and T summarized?

Unexpectedly, this technique speaks to a question I was mulling over a year and a half ago, about how to encourage question-asking. How can the design of the classroom experience structurally (as opposed to culturally) encourage people to ask questions and seek clarification when they need it? The answer I half-proposed back then was to choose certain moments in the lesson and make student questions the desired product in those moments. (“Okay everyone, pair up and generate a question about the definition we just put up” or whatever.) At the time I didn’t feel like this really addressed the need I was articulating because it had to be planned. Kate rightly pressed me on this because actually it’s awesome to do that. But I was hungering for something more ongoingly part of the texture of class, not something to build into a lesson at specific points. And as it turns out, student summaries are just what I was looking for! The questions and requests for clarification are forced out by putting students on the spot to summarize.

A last thought. Learning this new trick has been for me a testament to teaching’s infinitude as a craft. Facilitating rich and thought-provoking classroom discussions was already something I’d given a lot of thought and conscious work to; perhaps more than to any other part of teaching, at least in recent years. I.e. this is an area where I already saw myself as pretty accomplished (and, hopefully with due modesty, I still stand by that). And yet I could still learn something so basic as “so-and-so, can you summarize what so-and-so said?” and have it make a huge difference. What an amazing enterprise to always be able to grow so much.

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