[Mailbag] What Do You Do with the Ideas You Used to Call “Mistakes”

Guillaume Paré, in the very interesting comments of my last post where I urged us to reconsider mistakes:

I do agree with what is written, but I am still wondering what I’m supposed to do with that information and the student’s copy.

T: Oh this is so interesting! You’ve actually answered a different question correctly. Check this out:

T: How does that help you come up with an answer to the original question? Talk about it. I’ll be back.

That’s a script right there. It works for any incorrect answer. The script is all-purpose and all-weather but it has two challenging requirements:

  1. You have to actually believe that student ideas are interesting, especially ones that don’t correctly answer the question you were trying to ask.
  2. You have to identify the question the student answered correctly.

This is why I want to learn more math and more math and more math.

The more math I know, the more power I have not just to show off at parties but also to appreciate student ideas and to identify the different interesting questions they’re answering correctly.

Barbara Pearl, via email:

Can you write about it briefly again in a simpler way so I can try and understand it? When students make a mistake or answer something incorrectly, you want to …

I want to teach in a way that honors the specific student and also the general ways people learn.

So in any interaction with students, I need to a) understand the sense they’re making of mathematics, b) celebrate that sense, saying loudly “I see you making sense!”, and then c) help them develop that sense, connecting the question they answered correctly to a question they haven’t yet answered correctly.

Rachel, in the comments:

So, if we don’t call it a mistake, then what do we call it?

I don’t have any problem saying a student’s answer is incorrect, that they didn’t correctly answer the question I was trying to ask. But my favorite mathematical questions defy categories like “correct” and “incorrect” entirely:

  • So how would you describe the pattern?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • Would a table, equation, or graph be more useful to you here?
  • How are you thinking about the question right now?
  • What extra information do you think would be helpful?

How can you call any answer to those questions a mistake or incorrect? What would that even mean? Those descriptions feel inadequate next to the complexity of the mathematical ideas contained in those answers, which I interpret as a signal that I’m asking questions that matter.

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Denise Gaskins quoting WW Sawyer:

Most remarks made by children consist of correct ideas very badly expressed. A good teacher will be very wary of saying ‘No, that’s wrong.’ Rather, he will try to discover the correct idea behind the inadequate expression. This is one of the most important principles in the whole of the art of teaching.

Daniel Peter:

“So, if we don’t call it a mistake, then what do we call it?”

THINKING

cheesemonkeysf:

I find that I have to keep insisting that they restate the question in their own words. The culture of “right answer” is filled with shame and shaming, and students will try repeatedly to just give me the “correct” answer to the original question. But this is a missed opportunity for developing understanding, in my view.

That Isn’t a Mistake

I’ve seen this particular incorrect answer from dozens of students over the last several weeks.

The work for 10 and 15 marbles is incorrect, but it isn’t a mistake. If I label it a mistake, even if I attach a growth mindset message to that label, I damage the student, myself, mathematics, and the relationships between us.

Mistakes are the difference between what I did and what I meant to Do.

For example, I know that words in the middle of a sentence generally aren’t capitalized. I meant to type “do” but I typed “Do.” That was a mistake.

What we’re seeing in the table above, by contrast, is students doing the thing they meant to do!

When I call that table a mistake, what I’m actually saying is that there’s a difference between what the student did and what I meant for the student to do. Instead of seeing the student’s work as a window into her developing ideas about tables and linear patterns, I see it as a mirror of my own thinking.

And it’s a bad mirror of my own thinking. It doesn’t reflect my thinking well at all!

It’s a bad mirror, so I call it a mistake. “Mistakes grow your brain,” I say. “We expect them, respect them, inspect them, and correct them here,” I say. And if we have to label student ideas “mistakes,” maybe those are good messages to attach to that label.

But the vast majority of the work we label “mistakes” is students doing exactly what they meant to do.

We just don’t understand what they meant to do.

Teaching effectively means I need to know what a student knows and what to ask or say to help her develop that knowledge. Calling her ideas a mistake transforms them from a window into her knowledge into a mirror of my own, and I am instantly less effective.

Our students offer us windows and we exchange them for mirrors.

The next time you see an answer that is incorrect, don’t remind yourself about the right way to talk about a mistake. It probably isn’t a mistake.

Ask yourself instead, “What question did this student answer correctly? What aspects of her thinking can I see through this window? Why would I want a mirror when this window is so much more interesting?”

Big Online Courses Have a Problem. Here’s How We Tried to Fix It.

The Problem

Here is some personal prejudice: I don’t love online courses.

I love learning in community, even in online communities, but online courses rarely feel like community.

To be clear, by online courses I mean the kind that have been around almost since the start of the internet, the kind that were amplified into the “Future of Education™” in the form of MOOCs, and which continue today in a structure that would be easily recognized by someone defrosted after three decades in cold storage.

These courses are divided into modules. Each module has a resource like a video or a conversation prompt. Students are then told to respond to the resource or prompt in threaded comments. You’re often told to make sure you respond to a couple of other people’s responses. This is community in online courses.

The reality is that your comment falls quickly down a long list as other people comment, a problem that grows in proportion to the number of students in the course. The more people who enroll, the less attention your ideas receive and consequently you’re less interested in contributing your ideas, a negative feedback loop which offers some insight into the question, “Why doesn’t anybody finish these online courses?

I don’t love online courses but maybe that’s just me. Two years ago, the ShadowCon organizers and myself, created four online courses to extend the community and ideas around four 10-minute talks from the NCTM annual conference. We hosted the courses using some of the most popular online course software.

The talks were really good. The assignments were really good. There’s always room for improvement but the facilitators would have had to quit their day jobs to increase the quality even 10%.

And still retention was terrible. 3% of participants finished the fourth week’s assignment who finished the first week’s.

Low retention from Week 1 to Week 4 in the course.

The organizers and I had two hypotheses:

  • The size of the course enrollment inhibited community formation and consequently retention.
  • Teachers had to remember another login and website in order to participate in the course, creating friction that decreased retention.

Our Solution

For the following year’s online conference extensions, we wanted smaller groups and we wanted to go to the people, to whatever software they were already using, rather than make the people come to us.

So we used technology that’s even older than online course software, technology that is woven tightly into every teacher’s daily routine: email.

Teachers signed up for the courses. They signed up in affinity groups – coaches, K-5 teachers, or 6-12 teachers.

The assignments and resources they would have received in a forum posting, they received in an email CC’d to two or three other participants, as well as the instructor. They had their conversation in that small group rather than in a massive forum.

Of course this meant that participants wouldn’t see all their classmates’ responses in the massive forum, including potentially helpful insights.

So the role of the instructors in this work wasn’t to respond to every email but rather to keep an eye out for interesting questions and helpful insights from participants. Then they’d preface the next email assignment with a digest of interesting responses from course participants.

The Results

To be clear, the two trials featured different content, different instructors, different participants, and different grouping strategies. They took place in different years and different calendar months in those years. Both courses were free and about math, but there are plenty of variables that confound a direct comparison of the media.

So consider it merely interesting that average course retention was nearly 5x when the medium was email rather than online course software.

Retention was nearly five times greater in the email course than LMS.

It’s also just interesting, and still not dispositive, that the length of the responses in emails were 2x the length of the responses in the online course software.

Double the word count.

People wrote more and stuck around longer for email than for the online course software. That says nothing about the quality of their responses, just the quantity. It says nothing about the degree to which participants in either medium were building on each other’s ideas rather than simply speaking their own truth into the void.

But it does make me wonder, again, if large online courses are the right medium for creating an accessible community around important ideas in our field, or in any field.

What do you notice about this data? What does it make you wonder?

Featured Comments

Leigh Notaro:

By the way, the Global Math Department has a similar issue with sign-ups versus attendance. Our attendance rate is typically 5%-10% of those who sign up. Of course, we do have the videos and the transcript of the chat. So, we have made it easy for people to participate in their own time. Partipating in PD by watching a video though is never the same thing as collaborating during a live event – virtually or face-to-face. It’s like learning in a flipped classroom. Sure, you can learn something, but you miss out on the richness of the learning that really can only happen in a face-to-face classroom of collaboration.

William Carey:

At our school now, when we try out new parent-teacher communication methods, we center them in e-mail, not our student information system. It’s more personal and more deeply woven into the teachers’ lives. It affords the opportunity for response and conversation in a way that a form-sent e-mail doesn’t.

Cathy Yenca:

At the risk of sounding cliché or boastful about reaching “that one student”, how does one represent a “data point” like this one within that tiny 3%? For me, it became 100% of the reason and reward for all of the work involved. I know, I know, I’m a sappy teacher :-)

Justin Reich is extremely thoughtful about MOOCs and online education and offered an excellent summary of some recent work.

2018 Oct 5. Definitely check out the perspective of Audrey, who was a participant in the email group and said she wouldn’t participate again.

2018 Oct 12. Rivka Kugelman had a much more positive experience in the email course than Audrey, one which seemed to hinge on her sense that her emails were actually getting read. Both she and Audrey speak to the challenge of cultivating community online.

What Does Fluency Without Understanding Look Like?

In the wake of Barbara Oakley’s op-ed in the New York Times arguing that we overemphasize conceptual understanding in math class, it’s become clear to me that our national conversation about math instruction is missing at least one crucial element: nobody knows what anybody means by “conceptual understanding.”

For example, in a blog comment here, Oakley compares conceptual understanding to knowing the definition of a word in a foreign language. Also, Oakley frequently cites a study by Paul Morgan that attempts to discredit conceptual understanding by linking it to “movement and music” (p. 186) in math class.

These are people publishing their thoughts about math education in national publications and tier-one research journals. Yet you’d struggle to find a single math education researcher who’d agree with either of their characterizations of one of the most important strands of mathematical proficiency.

Here are two useful steps forward.

First, Adding It Up is old enough to vote. It was published by the National Research Council. It’s free. You have no excuse not to read its brief chapter on procedural fluency. Then critique that definition.

Conceptual understanding refers to an integrated and functional grasp of mathematical ideas. Students with conceptual understanding know more than isolated facts and methods. They understand why a mathematical idea is important and the kinds of contexts in which is it useful. They have organized their knowledge into a coherent whole, which enables them to learn new ideas by connecting those ideas to what they already know. Conceptual understanding also supports retention. Because facts and methods learned with understanding are connected, they are easier to remember and use, and they can be reconstructed when forgotten. (pp. 118-119.)

If you’re going to engage with the ideas of a complex field, engage with its best. That’s good practice for all of us and it’s especially good practice for people who are commenting from outside the field like Oakley (trained in engineering) and Morgan (trained in education policy).

Second, math education professionals need to continually articulate a precise and practical definition of “conceptual understanding.” In conversations with people in my field, I find the term tossed around so casually so often that everyone in the conversation assumes a convergent understanding when I get the sense we’re all picturing it rather differently.

To that end, I think it would be especially helpful to compile examples of fluency without understanding. Here are three and I’d love to add more from your contributions on Twitter and in the comments.

A student who has procedural fluency but lacks conceptual understanding …

  • Can accurately subtract 2018-1999 using a standard algorithm, but doesn’t recognize that counting up would be more efficient.
  • Can accurately compute the area of a triangle, but doesn’t recognize how its formula was derived or how it can be extended to other shapes. (eg. trapezoids, parallelograms, etc.)
  • Can accurately calculate the discriminant of y = x2 + 2 to determine that it doesn’t have any real roots, but couldn’t draw a quick sketch of the parabola to figure that out more efficiently.

This is what worries the people in one part of this discussion. Not that students wouldn’t experience delirious fun in every minute of math class but that they’d become mathematical zombies, plodding functionally through procedures with no sense of what’s even one degree outside their immediate field of vision.

Please offer other examples in the comments from your area of content expertise and I’ll add them to the post.

BTW. I’m also enormously worried by people who assume that students can’t or shouldn’t engage creatively in the concepts without first developing procedural fluency. Ask students how they’d calculate that expression before helping them with an algorithm. Ask students to slice up a parallelogram and rearrange it into a more familiar shape before offering them guidance. Ask students to sketch a parabola with zero, one, or two roots before helping them with the discriminant. This is a view I thought Emma Gargroetzi effectively critiqued in her recent post.

BTW. I’m happy to read a similar post on “conceptual understanding without procedural fluency” on your blog. I’m not writing it because a) I find myself and others much less confused about the definition of procedural fluency than conceptual understanding (oh hi, Adding It Up!) and b) I find it easier to help students develop procedural fluency than conceptual understanding by, like, several orders of magnitude.

2018 Sep 05: The Khan Academy Long-Term Research team saw lots of students who could calculate the area of a kite but wrote variations on “idk” when asked to defend their answer.

2018 Sep 09: Here’s an interesting post on practice from Mark Chubb.

2018 Sep 27: Useful post from Henri Picciotto.

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Featured Comments

Karen Campe:

Can find zeros of factored quadratic that equals zero, but uses same approach when doesn’t equal zero. E.g. can solve (x-3)(x-2) = 0 but also answers 3 and 2 for (x-3)(x-2) = 6.

Ben Orlin:

The big, weird thing about math education is that most pupils have no experience of what mastery looks like. They’ve heard language spoken; they’ve watched basketball; they’ve eaten meals; but they probably haven’t seen creative mathematical problem-solving. This makes it extra important that they have *some* experience of this, as early as possible. Otherwise math education feels like running passing drills when you’ve never seen a game of basketball.

Mike:

Today a student correctly solved -5=7-4x but then argued that -4x +7=-5 was a different equation that had to have a different answer.

Michael Pershan:

This has definitely not been my experience, and I don’t think this is consistent with the idea that conceptual and procedural fluency co-develop — an idea rooted in research.

William Carey:

I really like that way of talking about it. The way I think of it is a bit like exploration of an unknown continent. One the one hand, you have to spend time venturing boldly out into the unknown jungle, full of danger and mistakes and discovery. But if you venture too far, you can’t get food, water, and supplies up to the party. Tigers eat you in the night. So you spend time consolidating, building fortified places, roads, wells, &c. Eventually, the territory feels safe, and that prepares you to head into the unknown again.

Jane Taylor:

A student who can calculate slope but has no idea what it means as the rate of change in a real context.

Kim Morrow-Leong:

An example of procedural fluency without conceptual understanding is adding up a series of integers one by one instead of finding additive inverses (no need to even call it an additive inverse – calling it “canceling” would even be ok.) Example: -4 + 5 + -9 + -5 + 4 + 9

2018 Oct 13 NCTM offers their own definition of procedural fluency in mathematics.

Drill-Based Math Instruction Diminishes the Math Teacher as Well

Emma Gargroetzi posts an astounding rebuttal to Barbara Oakley’s New York Times op-ed encouraging drill-based math instruction. Gargroetzi highlights two valid points from Oakley and then takes a blowtorch to the rest of them.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her last sentence since I read it yesterday.

Anyone who teaches children that they need to silently comply through painful experiences before they will be allowed to let their brilliance shine has no intention of ever allowing that brilliance to shine, and will not be able to see it when it does.

I’m perhaps more hesitant than Gagroetzi to judge intent. Lots of teachers were, themselves, victimized by drill-based instruction as students and may lack an imagination for anything different. But I’m absolutely convinced that a) we act ourselves into belief rather than believing our way into acting, and b) actions and beliefs will accumulate over a career like rust and either inhibit or enhance our potential as teachers.

A math program that endorses drills and pain as the foundational element of math instruction (rather than a supporting element) and as a prerequisite for creative mathematical thought (rather than a co-requisite) inhibits the student and the teacher both, diminishing the student’s interest in producing that creativity and the teacher’s ability to notice it.

Teachers need to disrupt the harmful messages their students have internalized about mathematics. But we also need to disrupt the harmful messages that teachers have internalized as well.

What experiences can disrupt the harmful messages teachers have internalized about math instruction? Name some in the comments. I’ll add my own suggestions later tomorrow.

2018 Aug 25. I added my own suggestion here.

Featured Comments

Faye calls out the process of learning content and pedagogy simultaneously:

Many mathematics teachers do not have the mathematics content knowledge that they need themselves. The Greater Birmingham Mathematics Partnership has found that teaching teachers mathematics using inquiry based instruction results in increased content knowledge for the teachers and a change in their beliefs about how and what all children can learn, i.e., acting themselves into changed beliefs.

Chris:

Math teachers circles (www.mathteacherscircle.org/). They provide the space for math teachers to be mathematicians (in the same way a lot of the arts teachers I know are still practicing artists).

Another Chris echoes:

It wasn’t until I was asked to think about mathematical tasks and ideas for my own understanding that I could ask the same of my students. And then, it was unavoidable…there was no going back.

William Thill elaborates:

But when I can tap into the emotional and intellectual highs that emerge from playing with cherished colleagues, I am more likely to “set the buffet” for my students with more open-ended exploration times.

Martha Mulligan:

… watching yourself teach on video is a great experience to disrupt harmful messages about math instruction, like talking too much as the teacher. I know that many math teachers feel the need to provide the most perfect, refined, rehearsed explanation so that students can see what they are supposed to see in the way they are supposed to see it. I certainly felt (at time still feel?) that way. That practice diminishes the students’ roles of sense-making on their own. But watching a video of myself teaching was one of the most humbling things I’ve done and it changed my practice so much. I also watched them among other trusted teachers from whom I learned so much. Having time to stop a video, talk about, reflect on it, etc is very powerful. Even seemingly simple things like wait time and teacher movement/positioning can look very different than what we imagine we look like.

Alexandra Martinez calls out the limitation of reading narratives and watching videos of innovative teaching:

I think the most powerful way to disrupt teacher’s own experiences and expectations is new creative experiences with their own students. The evidence and reflection can support teachers in seeing what is possible. If we ask teachers to imagine what is possible through narrative, they won’t always believe it. But when they see their own students speaking and thinking as mathematicians, that evidence disrupts their established belief systems. So I’d say observations, modeling, Coteaching, pushing in, PLC planning with lesson study can all potentially do this.

Be sure, also, to check into Chris Heddles’ a/k/a Third Chris’s dissent:

I’m going to go against the grain and admit that I use drill as a prerequisite (or at least an opening activity) with many of my students.