Golden Gate Suicides

This series and the accompanying infograph make for fascinating class discussion. I stripped the graph of most of its identifying features — captions, legends, and titles — tossed it onto my students without introduction or fanfare, and had them intuit those features back to life.

This year, more than any year before it, I am comfortable leaving an interesting question unanswered. This is to say that my students will debate a question like, “Where did people commit suicide most often? The 69th what?” and, as the conversation exhausts itself, they can’t count on me to step in with the answer. This is to say the opposite, that as the conversation exhausts itself, I will shrug and advance the slide to some new work, content to leave the question unanswered.

I don’t have any evidence to suggest this approach to learning will a) increase your Algebra test scoresIn fact, if you apply this detached stance to core curriculum — adding fractions or solving the quadratic equation, for instance — I can guarantee you the opposite., b) help the US compete with the Indian subcontinent, or c) any of that. I only know that i) my students seem less afraid of wrong answers and more patient with irresolution, ii) they seem, as learners, less certain and more curious, iii) I enjoy teaching more, and iv) the next time we attempt to define an Unknown 1) I will hear from more new voices while 2) the old voices will be all the more eager to kick the Unknown in the teeth before it limps away yet again.

About 
I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.

22 Comments

  1. I think you’re exactly right with your footnote. At least, that’s been my experience in teaching over the last five years. I present many open ended questions, cultivate the questions from the kids, leave things hanging all the time, and students get curious. And my test scores don’t compare at all with my drill and kill neighbors. But I get kids to love science, and more importantly, to love learning. And in the end, that’s what matters. I think you’d be well served to do some action research on what you’re writing about here. A good place to start:

    http://tinyurl.com/actnrsrch

  2. If I didn’t know better, Jeff, I’d suggest that we’re finding ourselves annoyed by the exact same habits of mind (and our own contributions to those habits) on opposite sides of the country in opposite academic disciplines.

    Joe, to clarify, I’m saying that this coy approach to class discussion (where I simply pose questions, test their hypotheses, but answer nothing) has little place in the core of my class, where a student who needs to know what a exponent raised to another exponent looks like eventually needs an answer.

    Put another way, I have rarely felt the need to choose between test-ready skill acquisition and goofy conceptual digressions.

  3. Do “test-ready skill acquisition(s)” and “goofy conceptual digressions” serve different masters? I think they do. Both have a place.

    Which one is likely to inspire real inquiry though? Perhaps it’s a false choice. I suspect it is, but you seemed torn in your original post. Am I misreading this?

  4. I wrote this a few posts back:

    And it struck me as I put an example up on a slide and asked them “what can you do with this?” how little time I spend “teaching” anymore, how these goofy conceptual digressions have trained my kids to look for connections, not just between “plastic surgery” and “frightened children,” but between “old skills” and “new skills.”

    The better I manage the goofy conceptual digressions, the less time the skill acquisition seems to take. (I say “seems to” because this is pretty anecdotal territory we’re venturing into.)

  5. Hey Dan, I started a discussion, What blogs do you read, and why? (http://eflclassroom.ning.com/forum/topics/what-blogs-do-you-read-and-why) over at EFL Classroom 2.0 that sprung from your blog post. A quote:

    He’s a high school math teacher. I ran across some geometry curriculum he had developed, and I was jealous. I admire and adore as I read through peoples posts, but only once in awhile do I get that feeling of jealousy. This person has created something that I would want to create, and I’m not sure if I could.

    More where that came from… go read it!

    Ciao!

  6. “I say “seems to” because this is pretty anecdotal territory we’re venturing into.”

    That’s why I linked you to the book on Action Research. I think your blogging would gain more authority by actually researching the claims that you make. The process is incredibly liberating as well. I highly recommend it.

    http://www.getrealscience.com/jhenderson/?p=96

    I’ve been reading you for years (along with my hallmate Dina), and we often talk about your cognitive progression. Action research, man, action research.

  7. Your comment on Indian subcontinent reminded me of Gladwell’s chapter ‘Math Tests and Rice Paddies’ in the book Outliers. He discusses the obvious logic of Asian language in describing math–no words like ‘forty’ their word means ‘four tens’ etc. BUT the point that came home to me is it has to do with time–he says Asian kids will spend 10 times more time working on a problem than American kids. What you do it give kids time. Kudos.

  8. Dan, I’m curious to know exactly how you set something like this up. Hopefully, we’ll one day have video of how you do this in your classroom, but until that day…

    When you say that you “tossed it onto my students without introduction”, does that mean you literally put up the graphic and walk away? Are there any questions they might ask that you will answer? What norms do you have for your students during these discussions?

    Until you get the video up, can you describe what happens and what doesn’t happen? In the past, I’ve been accused of providing my students with too little scaffolding, so I’d just like to know how you do it so that I can learn from you.

  9. At this point I’d like to believe my students trust me enough to curate not-boring media in our class that when I toss something up on the board I can walk away and they’ll assume there’s subtextual meaning or something important to unpack without me prodding them, even if it isn’t immediately obvious.

    I’ll ask questions if nothing’s happening, questions that are brief, questions which may seem initially unanswerable. “Where is this?” “Which side is closer to us?” and then “What is this a graph of?”

    At that point students start tossing out responses and I’ll do little else at that point except literalize their thesis. (eg. a student tells me it could be the number of car crashes at a given point on the bridge and I’ll say, “Okay, so you’re saying there were two crashes here. Four crashes there. Seventeen crashes there. Sound good to everyone?”) and wait for another student to point out the incongruity for me.

    I aim to curate in these sessions. I try to refine or recast student thought while projecting little of my own. I ask questions but since this goes nowhere near core curriculum I don’t worry about whether I have scaffolded one of these goofy conceptual digressions enough and, lately, I have no trouble walking away from an unanswered question.

  10. I may update this now and again, today to observe that, when I toss one of these up on the whiteboard, I make sure I am staring intently at the board, rather than staring smugly at my class, waiting for them to discover the interesting thing I have brought them. I’m sure they know this is just an act but it helps relieve some pressure, I think, if they think I am just as befuddled as they are.

  11. “…but since this goes nowhere near core curriculum I don’t worry about whether I have scaffolded one of these goofy conceptual digressions enough and, lately, I have no trouble walking away from an unanswered question.”

    Dost thou protest too much? Seems to me that if you had “no trouble walking away,” you wouldn’t be devoting precious blog space why/how/if it works.

    I’m not trying to be a snot. I just don’t want you to get too dismissive about this. It’s important. But I think you know that.

  12. “…but since this goes nowhere near core curriculum I don’t worry about whether I have scaffolded one of these goofy conceptual digressions enough and, lately, I have no trouble walking away from an unanswered question.”

    Dost thou protest too much? Seems to me that if you had “no trouble walking away,” you wouldn’t be devoting precious blog space to why/how/if it works.

    I’m not trying to be a snot. I just don’t want you to get too dismissive about this. It’s important. But I think you know that.