Lessons from Bowen and Darryl Thursday, Jan 28 2016 

At the JMM this year, I had the pleasure of attending a minicourse on “Designing and Implementing a Problem-Based Mathematics Course” taught by Bowen Kerins and Darryl Yong, the masterminds behind the legendary PCMI teachers’ program Developing Mathematics course, with a significant assist from Mary Pilgrim of Colorado State University.

I’ve been wanting to get a live taste of Bowen and Darryl’s work since at least 2010, when Jesse Johnson, Sam Shah, and Kate Nowak all came back from PCMI saying things like “that was the best math learning experience I’ve ever had,” and I started to have a look at those gorgeous problem sets. It was clear to me that they had done a lot of deep thinking about many of the central concerns of my own teaching. How to empower learners to get somewhere powerful and prespecified without cognitive theft. How to construct a learning experience that encourages learners to savor, to delectate. That simultaneously attends lovingly to the most and least empowered students in the room. &c.

I want to record here some new ideas I learned from Bowen and Darryl’s workshop. This is not exhaustive but I wanted to record them both for my own benefit and in the hopes that they’ll be useful to others. In the interest of keeping it short, I won’t talk about things I already knew about (such as their Important Stuff / Interesting Stuff / Tough Stuff distinction) even though they are awesome, and I’ll keep my own thoughts to a minimum. Here’s what I’ve got for you today:

1) The biggest takeaway for me was how exceedingly careful they are with people talking to the whole room. First of all, in classes that are 2 hours a day, full group discussions are always 10 minutes or less. Secondly, when students are talking to the room it is always students that Bowen and Darryl have preselected to present a specific idea they have already thought about. They never ask for hands, and they never cold-call. This means they already know more or less what the students are going to say. Thirdly, they have a distinction between students who try to burn through the work (“speed demons”) and students who work slowly enough to receive the gifts each question has to offer (“katamari,” because they pick things up as they roll along) – and the students who are asked to present an idea to the class are only katamari! Fourthly, a group discussion is only ever about a problem that everybody has already had a chance to think about – and even then, never about a problem for which everybody has come to the same conclusion the same way. Fifthly, in terms of selecting which ideas to have students present to the class, they concentrate on ideas that are nonstandard, or particularly visual, or both (rather than standard and/or algebraic).

This is for a number of reasons. First of all, the PCMI Developing Mathematics course has something like 70 participants. So part of it is the logistics of teaching such a large course. You lose control of the direction of ideas in the class very quickly if you let people start talking and don’t already know what they’re going to say. (Bowen: “you let them start just saying what’s on their mind, you die.”) But there are several other reasons as well, stemming (as I understood it anyway) from two fundamental questions: (a) for the people in the room who are listening, what purpose is being served / how well are their time and attention being used? and (b) what will the effect of listening to [whoever is addressing the room] be on participants’ sense of inclusion vs. exclusion, empowerment vs. disempowerment? Bowen and Darryl want somebody listening to a presentation to be able to engage it fluently (so it has to be about something they’ve already thought about) and to get something worthwhile out of it (so it can’t be about a problem everybody did the same way). And they want everybody listening to feel part of it, invited in, not excluded – which means that you can’t give anybody an opportunity to be too high-powered in front of everybody. (Bowen: “The students who want to share their super-powerful ideas need a place in the course to do that. We’ve found it’s best to have them do that individually, to you, when no one else can hear.”)

2) Closely related. Bowen talked at great length about the danger of people hearing somebody else say something they don’t understand or haven’t heard of and thinking, “I guess I can’t fully participate because I don’t know that idea or can’t follow that person.” It was clear that every aspect of the class was designed with this in mind. The control they exercise over what gets said to the whole room is one aspect of this. Another is the norm-setting they do. (Have a look at page 1 of this problem set for a sense of these norms.) Another is the way they structure the groups. (Never have a group that’s predominantly speed-demons with one or two katamari. If you have more speed-demons than katamari, you need some groups to be 100% speed demon.)

While this concern resonates with me (and I’m sure everybody who’s ever taught, esp. a highly heterogeneous group), I had not named it before, and I think I want to follow Bowen and Darryl’s lead in incorporating it more essentially into planning. In the past, I think my inclination has been to intervene after the fact when somebody says something that I think will make other people feel shut out of the knowledge. (“So-and-so is talking about such-and-such but you don’t need to know what they’re talking about in order to think about this.”) But then I’m only addressing the most obvious / loud instances of this dynamic, and even then, only once much of the damage has already been done. The point is that the damage is usually exceedingly quiet – only in the mind of somebody disempowering him or herself. You can’t count on yourself to spot this, you have to plan prophylactically.

3) Designing the problem sets specifically with groupwork in mind, Bowen and Darryl look for problems that encourage productive collaboration. For example, problems that are arduous to do by yourself but interesting to collaborate on. Or, problems that literally require collaboration in order to complete (such as the classic one of having students attempt to create fake coin-flip data, then generate real data, trade, and try to guess other students’ real vs. fake data).

4) And maybe my single favorite idea from the presentation was this: “If a student has a cool idea that you would like to have them present, consider instead incorporating that idea into the next day’s problem set.” I asked for an example, and Bowen mentioned the classic about summing the numbers from 1 to n. Many students solved the problem using the Gauss trick, but some students solved the problem with a more visual approach. Bowen and Darryl wanted everybody to see this and to have an opportunity to connect it to their own solution, but rather than have anybody present, they put a problem on the next day’s problem set asking for the area of a staircase diagram, using some of the same numbers that had been asked about the day before in the more traditional 1 + … + n form.

I hope some of these ideas are useful to you. I’d love to muse on how I might make use of them but I’m making myself stop. Discussion more than welcome in the comments though.

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!

Notes from the Learning Lab: How to Dull My Curiosity Friday, Dec 14 2012 

I know I say this kind of thing a lot but I’m sitting here studying for a final, and this truth is just glaring and throbbing at me:

If you want to dull my curiosity, tell me what the answer is supposed to be.

If you want to make my curiosity vanish completely, do that and then add in a little time pressure.

There is nothing as lethal to my sense of wonder as that alchemical combination of already knowing how things are going to turn out (without knowing why), and feeling the clock tick.

Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Yup, Time Pressure Sucks Friday, Mar 2 2012 

Continuing the series I began here and here, about snippets of new-feeling insight about the learning process coming from my new role on the student side of the desk…

This one is funny, because I knew it, I mean I knew it in my bones, from a decade working with students; but yet it’s totally different to learn it from the student side. I’m a little late to the blogosphere with this insight; I’ve been thinking about it since December, because it kind of freaked me out. Even though, like I keep saying, I already knew it.

Learning math under time pressure sucks. It sucks.

It sucks so much that I ACTUALLY STOPPED LIKING MATH for about 5 days in December.

I didn’t know this was possible, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked closely with me in a mathematical context (neither my students, colleagues, or teachers) will really believe it. But it’s true. It was utterly, completely unfun. There was too much of it and too little time. It was like stuffing a really delicious meal down your throat too quickly to chew, or running up the Grand Canyon so fast you puke. Beautiful ideas were everywhere around me and I was pushing them in, or pushing past them, so hard I couldn’t enjoy them; instead they turned my stomach, and I had the feeling that the ones I pushed past in a hurry were gone forever, and the ones I shoved in weren’t going to stay down.

I had some independent study projects to work on during winter break, and what was incredible was the way the day after my last final exam, math suddenly became delicious again. Engaging on my own time and on my own terms, that familiar sense of wonder was back instantly. All I had to do was not be required to understand any specific thing by any specific date, and I was a delighted, voracious learner again.

Now part of the significance of this story for me is just the personal challenge: most of the grad students I know are stressed out, and I entered grad school with the intention of not being like them in this respect. I was confident that, having handled adult responsibilities for a decade (including the motherf*cking classroom, thank you), I would be able to engage grad school without allowing it to stress me out too much. So the point of this part of the story is just, “okay Grad Program, I see you, I won’t take you for granted, you are capable of stressing me out if I let you.” And then regroup, figure out how to adjust my approach, and see how the new approach plays out in the spring semester.

But the part of the story I want to highlight is the opposite part, the policy implication. Look, I frickin love math. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this. I love it so much that most of my close friends sort of don’t feel that they understand me completely. So if piling on too much of it too quickly, with some big tests bearing down, gets me to dislike math, if only for 5 days, then the last decade of public education policy initiatives – i.e. more math, higher stakes – is nothing if not a recipe for EVERYONE TO HATE IT.

And, not learn it. Instead, disgorge it like a meal they didn’t know was delicious because it was shoved down their throat too fast.

In short. The idea of strict, ambitious, tested benchmarks in math to which all students are subject is crazy. It’s CRAZY. The more required math there is, and the stricter the timeline, the crazier. I mean, I already knew this ish was crazy, I’ve been saying this for years, but in light of my recent experience I’m beside myself. If you actually care about math, if you have ever had the profound pleasure of watching a child or an adult think for herself in a numerical, spatial or otherwise abstract or structural context, you know this but I have to say it: the test pressure is killing the thing you love. Its only function is to murder something beautiful.

If you teach, but especially if you are a school leader, and especially if you are involved in policy, I beg you: defend the space in which students can learn at their own pace. Fight for that space.