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The Unengageables

Halfway through my curriculum design workshops, I ask teachers to share their “secret skepticisms.” These are the sort of objections to new ideas that often take the form, “That would never work in my class because …. ” They share them anonymously in a Google Form before lunch.

The secret skepticisms came back in Phoenix two weeks ago and these four were easy to group together:

This process assumes every student wants to learn or has the motivation to learn.

How do I get students to buy-in when they struggle with any problem solving skills at all?

What if my kids don’t know enough math to be engaged?

This approach is very compelling but this lesson will have additional challenges with students who could care less about getting involved. It is difficult getting any engagement by students who have little interest.

These responses were troubling. They seemed to emerge simultaneously from a deficit model of student thinking (ie. students lack engagement in the things we think they should be engaged in) and a fixed model of student intelligence (ie. these students are unengageable and that’s just the way it is).

Neither idea is true, of course.

What is true is that after years and years of being asked questions every day, students may find it odd to be asked to pose their own. After years and years of associating “math class” with a narrow range of skills like computation, memorization, solution, they may find it odd when you try to expand that range to include estimation, abstraction, argumentation, criticism, formulation, or modeling. After years and years of acclimating themselves to their math teacher’s low expectations for their learning, they may find your high expectations odd.

They may even resist you. They signed their “didactic contract” years and years ago. They signed it. Their math teachers signed it. The agreement says that the teacher comes into class, tells them what they’re going to learn, and shows them three examples of it. In return, the students take what their teacher showed them and reproduce it twenty times before leaving class. Then they go home with an assignment to reproduce it twenty more times.

Then here you come, Ms. I-Just-Got-Back-From-A-Workshop, and you want to change the agreement? Yeah, you’ll hear from their attorney.

“But it’s tough to start something this new in April,” a participant said.

That’s true. For similar reasons, it’s tough to start something new in a student’s ninth year of school. That doesn’t mean we don’t try. Thousands of teachers successfully change their practice mid-year and mid-career. Luckily, there are also steps we can take to acclimate our students gradually to new ways of learning math.

Here are three of them:

  • Model curiosity. I asked some kind of miscellaneous question on every opener. The questions weren’t mathematical. (eg. How much does an average American wedding cost? What’s the highest recorded temperature in Alaska?) I pulled them from different published books of miscellaneous facts and figures. This cost me very little classroom time and bought me quite a lot. It benefited my classroom management but it also built general, all-purpose curiosity into our classroom routine. That helps enormously when it comes to mathematical modeling where we’re telling students that we welcome their curiosity.
  • Ask the question, “What questions do you have?” Show any image or video from the top ten of 101questions. At the longest, this will take you one minute. Then ask them to write down the first question that comes to their mind. Take another minute to poll the crowd for their responses. (I model one polling procedure in this video.) This will also help your students to become more inquisitive and it will demonstrate that you prize their inquisitiveness.
  • Make estimation part of your daily routine. Modeling takes place on a cycle that runs from the very concrete to the very abstract and back again. Typically, we drop students halfway into the cycle with all kinds of abstract representations (formulas, line drawings, graphs) already given. Give your students more experience with concrete aspects of modeling like estimation by taking an image or video from Andrew Stadel’s Estimation 180 project and showing it to your students at the end of class. Ask them to write down a guess. Poll their guesses. Find out who has the highest guess and the lowest guess. Then show the answer.

Your students will come to understand you prize curiosity in general and their curiosity in particular. They’ll understand that mathematics comprises more than the intellectual hard tack and gruel they’ve been served for years. At that point, you can help walk them through activities involving estimation, abstraction, argumentation, criticism, formulation, modeling, and more, aware that each of your students can be engaged in challenging mathematics, that none of them is unengageable.

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Featured Comment

Kate Nowak:

Corny as it sounds, don’t give up. The first and second and tenth attempt at -whatever it is that’s a very different approach in your class – a 3Act, a project, a whatever it is — is probably going to either fall flat or fail spectacularly. The kids might get mad and weirdly uncooperative. Things might happen that you didn’t anticipate and don’t have the skills to handle. You aren’t going to get good at planning them until you get some experience planning them. You’re going to suck at this for a while. [..] You need to keep stretching the rubber band over and over until it loosens up and doesn’t snap back all the way.

43 Responses to “The Unengageables”

  1. on 12 Jun 2013 at 4:53 pmChris Adams

    Reading this really encapsulates my first year of teaching. More so with my pre-calc classes (as they are 11th and 12th graders), but with most students it’s a similar response of my breaching of their contract.

    It was interesting too because I think that deep down most of them felt that what I was doing should have been started when they were younger, and at this point it’s too impractical for them to change.

    Hopefully the teacher they have next year will be met with students constantly questioning the theorems and properties being presented to them.

  2. on 12 Jun 2013 at 5:28 pmMichael Pershan

    There was a really great thought that appeared on your blog a while ago*.

    *It was from your qualifying paper.

    In your writing and speaking you often make the claim that written texts force math into unnatural forms. And you preempted a really smart counter-argument: “But we do lots of unnatural stuff in math class. We ask questions that we know the answers to. That’s crazy unnatural, but good for learning. So why are natural things better?”

    >”But it’s tough to start something this new in April,” a participant said.

    And I think this is where natural things come in to play. The advantage of engaging with math in a more natural way is that kids already kinda of know how to do it. When kids are genuinely curious, it comes naturally to investigate an idea or put in effort toward uncovering an answer.

    So the need for more natural mathematical tasks is especially urgent when making the transition from one paradigm for engaging with math into another. Unnatural questions that involve estimation, abstraction, application, etc. can come later.

  3. on 12 Jun 2013 at 5:37 pmWendy Menard

    This post exemplifies why I am such a fan of this blog; you look a prevalent attitude right in the face, and not only refute it, but specifically deconstruct the tacit assumptions that underly it, and give concrete steps with which a reflective practitioner can attempt to improve the learning experience for his or her students.

    In teaching my Discrete Math class this term, I continually encountered the attitude among my colleagues that ‘the course would be so much fun if you only had the right students’ – a reference to the unfortunately labeled ‘Lower Third’ students I was teaching. I would love to put a copy of this post in everyone’s mailbox. Even with my more motivated students (whose motivation often takes the form of copying down every word on the board rather than active participation), getting them to ask questions (and sometimes even to answer them) is like pulling teeth. I have recognized that my practice currently might not engender the type of participation I would like to see. Thank you for giving concrete rationales, suggestions and steps I can take to create an active classroom environment. It’s great to end the year with such a powerful clarifying strategy.

  4. on 12 Jun 2013 at 6:13 pmrichkonar

    It takes along time to get the in-depth knowledge and confidence to be able to engage the unengageables or even the engageables. After doing the 3-Acts, I never realized how little most students think about things. At worst, the 3-Acts gets most students thinking.

    Before you can get students to engage, a great class culture must be created. This is where many great ideas fail. Students won’t engage fully unless the culture is right for learning. This starts on the first day and doesn’t end till the course is over.

    I’ve never seen Dan in action but I imagine from his blog, that his class culture is established by his enthusiasm, depth of knowledge, and the fact he works his rear-end off. Kids pick up real quick on those characteristics. It may take awhile, but most students will engage when they see these things from their teacher.

  5. on 12 Jun 2013 at 7:44 pmDarren Hudgins

    May I suggest an addition to your “acclimate your students” bullets that takes the “didactic contract” head on.

    Next year …. plan a week one that sets the tone for curiosity, inquiry and a routine to come. Make it so grand that it competes with the novelty obsessed brain and show your students that you are not adverse to taking risks in the pursuit of learning. (In other words – Take what they expect from a math teacher and turn it upside down.) Have your students actively participate in the grand lesson based on a human condition and then don’t give them the/an answer (hook) until they beg for it?

    Perhaps you could:
    – Turn your classroom into a cave with themes to discover throughout the year (time, scarcity)
    – Teach a class on top of the school building (fear, perception, novelty)
    – Perform a funeral with a real coffin that promotes the death of all they have ever known about Math (mortality, time)
    – Speak in a language that does not exist or that they do not totally understand for a period of time (linguistics, culture, humor)

    Educators may not like the fact that they have to compete with student life and new “shiny” object engagement but the reality is they do (frankly, I think they always have).

    The very question you were asked in Edu school still exists: Is teaching an Art or a Science? In a differentiated classroom it most certainly has to be both and Dan you do a fantastic job articulating and modeling it.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. on 12 Jun 2013 at 8:24 pmAsh Abdou

    Its upside down at my school!

    I work in a K-12 School, (Melbourne, Australia). There is a clear difference between the approaches to learning and teaching mathematics in year 6 and in year 7. The differences are a reflection of a transdisciplinary based curriculum (Year 6) and a curriculum based on compartmentalised knowledge (Year 7).

    In Year 6 our students have such a positive attitude to maths and most can clearly articulate the connections to other subject areas. At the end of year 6 we celebrate the fact that we have established a didactic contract that promotes curiosity and wonder.

    At Year 7, however the traditional text book approach to teaching mathematics challenges the didactic contract, redefining it in ways you describe in this post :(

    P.S. Darren Hudgins: would you like to teach Year 7 at my school?!

  7. on 12 Jun 2013 at 10:08 pmFawn Nguyen

    I completely agree and want to piggyback on @richkonar’s mention of class culture and how students will engage when their teacher is engaged and enthusiastic. We can take another teacher’s lesson and imitate/modify the delivery of the lesson, but we can’t imitate someone else’s passion and enthusiasm and humor.

    My responses to the 4 groups “secret skepticisms”:

    1) “This process assumes every student wants to learn or has the motivation to learn.” — And it’s a great assumption because I shouldn’t be in this business of teaching children and NOT believe that some do not want to learn. A few kids might prove me wrong, but hey, I tried and succeeded with the other 30 kids. I’ll try again tomorrow with the ones I couldn’t reach today.

    2) “How do I get students to buy-in when they struggle with any problem solving skills at all?” — Yep, these are SKILLS, and skills can be taught, modeled, nurtured, honed. Find great problems that encourage different types of problem-solving skills. Help them build up their strategies toolbox. Then give them opportunities to re-use some tools, tuning their tools, use a combination of tools. Invent a new tool. Start from Day 1. Oops, didn’t get a chance to start this and it’s April? That’s okay. Start today.

    3) “What if my kids don’t know enough math to be engaged?” — Is the task level appropriate first? How much scaffolding can I provide? Low entry – high exit. Dan said so.

    4) “This approach is very compelling but this lesson will have additional challenges with students who could care less about getting involved. It is difficult getting any engagement by students who have little interest.” — See Skepticism #1. Teacher’s genuine enthusiasm is huge and contagious.

    Thank you, Dan.

  8. [...] More brilliant advice on changing the culture of the Mathematics classroom from Dan Meyer. [...]

  9. on 13 Jun 2013 at 2:49 amPamela Sexton

    Wow…thank you! I have been teaching ELA in middle school for the past 5 years, but this post, among other things, makes me want to return to elementary school so that I can teach math again.

  10. on 13 Jun 2013 at 3:00 amPatrick Honner

    If this post had its own “secret skepticisms” section, you might see something like

    This post assumes that every teacher wants to learn or is motivated to improve their practice

  11. on 13 Jun 2013 at 5:04 amMichael Pershan

    >Neither idea is true, of course.

    But even if it is true, have a little bit of modesty, people! I mean, are you really so sure of yourself that you can tell the difference between the hopeless cases and the kids for whom you can make a difference?

    Don’t be so sure of yourself. You’re not that great.

  12. on 13 Jun 2013 at 5:05 amSean

    Mike, great thoughts. Patrick, that made me laugh.

    From Dan’s qualifying paper:

    “Thus, teachers are sympathetic to the distortion because teachers will suffer the immediate consequences of students who are unconfident or disruptive.”

    Some teachers, teachers in the aggregate, all teachers?

    I think some are sympathetic to the distortion because they see it as a scaffolding tool. We’ll focus first on how the data and procedures interact, then we’ll take away some data, then we’ll take away recommended procedures.

    The struggle of not knowing where to begin, although intuitively appealing, can be destabilizing and counterproductive.

  13. on 13 Jun 2013 at 5:31 amrichkonar

    It’s not about being able to tell the difference between the hopeless cases and the ones we can make a difference. It’s about satisfying one’s natural curiosity and getting students to think about something other than Instagram or Facebook. SBG and making a phone call home/email lets me figure out really quick who need more motivation.

    My guess is that most of the teachers who read this blog and implement some of ideas are doing more than most math teachers, thus in my eyes, they are great.

  14. on 13 Jun 2013 at 5:46 amclimeguy

    Your didactic contract reminds me of the “correct answer compromise” that Howard Gardner writes about so eloquently starting on page 141 in his 1991 book the “Unschooled Mind.” He talks about it in this interview:

    http://bit.ly/196g7Q9

  15. on 13 Jun 2013 at 6:30 amJohn Scammell

    I sometimes get that same kind of reaction in workshops. “But, John. You don’t know my kids. This won’t work on my kids.”

    I firmly believe that every kid can be somewhat engaged some of the time. I also believe that no kid can be fully engaged all of the time (or adult, for that matter). It’s about maximizing that engagement.

    We make the mistake of assuming that the kids who are quietly filling in their notes packets are engaged, and those who resist are disengaged. What if it’s the opposite?

    One of the favorite stories I share when asked questions like this in workshops is my experience using Dan’s Bucky video in a non-academic (remedial) math classroom. It’s class #4 on this very long post. Watch for the resistant girl accidentally getting engaged.

    http://thescamdog.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/ltps-a-day-of/

  16. on 13 Jun 2013 at 6:54 amStephen Bailey

    I’ll admit right off that I’m not a professional (schoolroom) teacher, although I do a fair amount of coaching of youngsters who are struggling with chemistry at school.
    The ones who seem most in need of help are the ones who feel out of their depth because they’ve “lost the plot” – they haven’t been helped to see the bigger picture, the aim, the use, the goal of the nuts-and-bolts stuff. They become frightened of the subject and consequently afraid of confronting their struggles.
    My experience is that if you can just get some confidence back, then the light will start to come on and they go forward.
    My apprehension with the approach you describe here is that there is a danger if you keep on asking questions, the student will keep on being challenged by their inability to answer – in a nutshell it’s confidence that’s the problem, not lack of curiosity.

  17. on 13 Jun 2013 at 7:38 amMary Dooms

    Students are curious. We just have to give ourselves permission to allow them to pose questions and wonder.

    A couple of years ago I asked my 7th graders to complete the stem “I wonder…” The initial purpose was to create a Prezi http://prezi.com/cotrfqjbjx4q/i-wonder/ for fall open house, but I soon realized it would be more powerful to examine these questions throughout the year—and did so. Note: past tense.

    Reading your post reminded me that I used to do this and I’m now asking myself why did I stop?

    Summer allows us to recalibrate. I’m going back to basics by reviewing Annenberg Learner videos to remind myself of the power of curiosity and discovery. I’m reading Mark Driscoll’s Fostering Algebraic Thinking. A few things need to return to the front burner. Curiosity is one of them.

  18. on 13 Jun 2013 at 7:43 amLaura

    Thanks, Dan, for the link to the estimation180 project. My department has been doing a “lesson study” type PD this year & we focused on estimation strategies. This site is the perfect link-up with the work we’ve been doing.

  19. on 13 Jun 2013 at 10:31 amBeth

    In the past, I’ve been the teacher leader, even an administrator, refuting the teachers who were frustrated with their students. Then I moved, took on a new position … and faced my most challenging year ever. Never thought I would be the “negative nancy” in education but I found myself thinking those thoughts.

    I’m glad for summer time. As Mary said above, summer allows us to recalibrate. I am delving into the math blogs, signed up for a MOOC on ‘how to learn math’ usually taught to students, but this is a revised version for teachers, and reading widely on formative assessment.

    Stephen’s thought above also resonates – my students lacked confidence. They didn’t believe they could do math.

    So in the fall I want to put your three steps into place – and scaffold the work early on to build up the confidence!

  20. on 13 Jun 2013 at 2:21 pmDavid Wees

    I think Patrick has hit the nail on the head.

    We know that there are ways to re-engage students with thinking and learning in the mathematics classroom, and I suspect we will find that the essence of these approaches will help teachers become re-engaged with the act of teaching and learning.

    It’s not that teachers (or students) are unengageable, it is that they are not currently engaged, or that they may be fervently engaged in practices which are poor pedagogical practice for their students.

  21. on 13 Jun 2013 at 6:47 pmPatty

    I hear you. All of you. And I want to be a good teacher, too, so I have been working on ways to engage and get the kids thinking. The most accurate description of my algebra I class this year is “collectively depressed”. And I can’t say that I blame them. If I had had to sit through 180 days of my class, I would have been depressed, too. So, I’m going to change. That being said, I need some help. Here’s my most important question, the one that stumps me and scares me and chases me back to the text book: once they are engaged and asking questions, how do I introduce the skills that I’m supposed to teach them so they can pass the end of course exam and I can sleep at night? How do I move them from bungee-jumping barbies to the generalized y = mx + b?

  22. on 13 Jun 2013 at 8:16 pmFawn Nguyen

    Hi Patty.

    I do Barbie Bungee to breathe life into y = mx + b. When we graph drop height vs # of rubber bands, we get to ask why is the graph not at (0,0) and kids will tell you that her height alone is the y-intercept. We get to ask about what things are changing, and they get to tell you that as they add each rubber band, the drop height increases. Slope now means change — a positive change that they were manipulating with.

    Then you give them more examples: like club membership dues where there’s an initiation fee plus the monthly fee, like renting something that charges an upfront fee plus an hourly rate, like the plumber who charges $60 just to show up at your door plus $40 per hour of work thereafter. Have them look up bowling and skating fees, iTunes downloads, cell phone plans, etc. Get them to write equations for these situations instead of the other way around (equation is given and they just plug and chug). Get them to do this in a spreadsheet so they get immediate feedback if they’d written a correct equation.

    I love that you said, “If I had had to sit through 180 days of my class…” This is how I plan my lessons, Patty. I have to become the student to figure out the level of engagement and get the most bang for the buck. Their attention span is limited, time is limited, resources are limited — but being mindful of these constraints each and every time we design a lesson will help us get better. I suck at one lesson one period, but I nail it the next period. I suck for half a day, but the next day I’m feeling pretty good overall. Teaching should be a constant flux of learning for teachers.

  23. [...] The Unengageables (Dan Meyer) — They signed their “didactic contract” years and years ago. They signed it. Their math teachers signed it. The agreement says that the teacher comes into class, tells them what they’re going to learn, and shows them three examples of it. In return, the students take what their teacher showed them and reproduce it twenty times before leaving class. Then they go home with an assignment to reproduce it twenty more times. Then here you come, Ms. I-Just-Got-Back-From-A-Workshop, and you want to change the agreement? Yeah, you’ll hear from their attorney. Applies to management as much as to teaching. [...]

  24. on 14 Jun 2013 at 6:19 amChris Fancher

    A very engaging post. It reminded me of seeing a mention of the Right Question Institute ( http://rightquestion.org/ ) and I picked up their book Make Just One Change ( http://www.amazon.com/Make-Just-One-Change ). In this we learn that we need to get students to ask questions that stimulate their learning. Instead of just sending them off to work, present a statement and ask them to think of questions that come to mind. Then have them compare questions with others in the class. Next have them classify the questions as “Googleable” and “Non-Googleable” The Googleable questions can be searched for at some other time or might be answered immediately. The students then go off and work on their questions.
    In a math class this process can help students and their teachers see their varied levels of knowledge. Some students may have to go in very different directions to get to the same result. But THEY have chosen their learning path. As you proceed with this the students will learn to become better questioners. And, ultimately, better learners.
    Again, great post!

  25. on 14 Jun 2013 at 8:33 amJim Tiffin Jr

    Building upon a short conversation that started on Twitter, http://bit.ly/19zwtU5, what you write about here could very easily be applied to so many other disciplines in school.

    The broad take-away that I have comes from the need to foster a student’s sense of curiosity as a natural habit of mind. Curiosity, however, expands beyond just math class, just as math expands beyond the mathematics classroom.

    As I read this post, and the links that go with it, I started thinking about connections to student-learning opportunities across their educational course load. Some of them are shared below:

    – Consider how you could rewrite the rest of the paragraph beginning with, “After years and years of associating “math class” with a narrow range of skills…”. if you swapped out the course for another subject. What are the narrow skills? What deeper cognitive processes would you use? You could argue that abstraction, argumentation, criticism, formulation, and modeling fit into other disciplines. It isn’t much of a stretch to see this in broader course spectrum.
    – The “didactic contract” link focuses on mathematics education and constructivism, but inquiry is not exclusive to math. Inquiry can be used in all disciplines.
    – The contract has probably been signed by more than just math students and math teachers. You describe a classroom routine of teachers giving out information and then students regurgitating it, that (sadly) is a pretty familiar way of doing business in other subjects as well.

    While you might have been writing specifically about mathematics, you have brought up a pedagogical idea that has a much larger reach than just that subject. Re-reading this post through a lens associated with a different content area, would be an excellent exercise for administrators and non-math teachers that are looking to examine the learning that takes place in their schools.

    Thank you again for a great post!

  26. on 14 Jun 2013 at 3:40 pmMikejc101185

    Did a 3 act task to do. First class failed epic-ly. Second class was just unsuccessful. I wanted to cry. This is the exact article I needed at exactly the right time.

    Thanks

  27. on 14 Jun 2013 at 7:39 pmAndrew Stadel

    Great post! It’s invigorating when you post about these experiences and provide high caliber content, persuasive arguments, and strong reasoning for 3 Act lessons.
    This 2012-13 school year was the first year doing 3 Act lessons all year and I found that starting early on in the year created a curious classroom throughout the year. Modeling curiosity and “what questions do you have” are key ingredients that all teachers (of any subject) need to be reminded about. I feel I should put that in a visible place everyday as I get ready or prepare for my students. The more you can do this, the more mileage these 3 Act lessons will get and I truly enjoy getting questions from students because they give me ideas for additional tasks. The challenge is circling back to all of those questions posed during Act 1. That said, Dan mentions “sincerity” quite often. I agree and need to practice it more. Be sincere with your students or all is lost.
    Lastly, I started 3 Act lessons in February of the 2011-2012 school year and it’s exactly what my students, class, and teaching needed. There was no turning back. I cringe when I hear teachers put up barriers.
    You were meant to do what you’re doing!

  28. on 15 Jun 2013 at 6:05 aml hodge

    The teachers in your workshop liked the ideas, but had some skepticism about how their students would react. You presented some ideas about teaching that you like, but have some concerns about how the participants reacted to those ideas. The 2nd skepticism reveals a disrespectful attitude by those teachers towards their students. Statements like “years and years of acclimating to low expectations”, reveals a disrespectful attitude towards teachers. It seems like there is an analogy in there somewhere.

    I think skepticism can be a good thing. The latter three of the four skepticisms are perfectly valid concerns. Certainly you need to consider the problem solving required in relation to the current problem solving abilities of your students as well as the “math that they know”. What doesn’t’ make sense to me, though, is why these teachers would not have these same skepticisms about any other approach or lesson, including their current approach and lessons.

  29. on 15 Jun 2013 at 12:16 pmScott Hills

    Don’t discount those unmotivated ones. We do final exam essays and there was one student who I knew had potential, but who I also knew had big problems happening in his life. Most days he kept his head down and did nothing. Homework, never saw it. Assessments, he would get a range of 60-70%. His essay, wonderful. He started by saying he was sorry and sharing more than he’s told anyone. Thanked me for proving to be funny and caring enough to give him pause over what he had considered doing numerous times. He gave specific lessons he found engaging, even though he personally didn’t engage. He shared that he was doing better and wanted more henceforth and he promised to start with my final in 2day’s time. He excitedly, not a word anyone would use with him, turned in his papers and they were among the best in all my hours…and once again there was a thank you attached.

    Even if they are not buying in, don’t forget they are watching and learning. Took 180 days, but I reached him… I am not sure of exactly when, but I now know I did it…

    Scott

  30. on 15 Jun 2013 at 3:46 pmKilian

    A fourth approach, humbly submitted:

    Tell em why you’re doing it.

    Just tell them. At the level of discourse appropriate to their age, have the discussion with kids similar to the many that are happening on this and other blogs. Here’s why I’m going to give you less “help.” Here’s why things may seem less “clear.” Here’s the difference between learning a “step” and learning an idea.

    There’s a difference between having rapport with kids and being in a learning relationship with them. Pulling back the curtain on why you’re making pedagogical decisions is part of how you get the the latter.

  31. on 15 Jun 2013 at 8:44 pmBruce Mansfield

    This is it, the unspoken barrier preventing forward movement in my school. So much easier to blame the kids than take a hard look at your class and admit that, when it comes down to it, it just isn’t that engaging. I’ve been there.

    My goal for next year – take what I’ve been reading here and attempt to implement it in my world history class – and talk with my colleagues to build a shared language of analysis and abstraction we’ll use in several departments: social studies, math, science, ELA. I appreciate what Jim Tiffin said above and believe that we secondary teachers have more in common with each other than is commonly recognized. Why do we spend our limited PD time in department meetings? My students don’t take six history classes, why shouldn’t I be talking with the math and science and English teachers?

    My question for the group: who is the Dan Meyer of social studies? I found this blog about a month ago and have slowly been working through the archives. There is a gold mine of ideas here (thank you for your 3 Acts, they saved my 12 year old’s interest in math after a year of worksheets at his school) but not all of it applies outside math instruction. As a social studies teacher, who should I be reading? Who do you read?

    Bruce

  32. on 16 Jun 2013 at 4:51 amMichael Pershan

    My question for the group: who is the Dan Meyer of social studies?

    I submit Stephen Lazar.

  33. on 16 Jun 2013 at 4:15 pmKevin H.

    The teacher needs to own the responsibility for outcomes in the classroom. Period. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be successful, but it does mean that to the extent you fall short, your reflection should be, “I KNOW there is something I could be doing differently that would work. What is it?” and not “See, these kids just can’t do it.”

    That said, I think there’s another way to interpret skepticisms #2-3, and I think it gets at a question I have had for a long time about Dan’s teaching philosophy: do students turn off primarily because they’re not interested in what you’re saying, or because they don’t understand what you’re saying and hate feeling dumb? Put more simply, when students aren’t engaged, is the root cause more likely a cognitive factor or a motivational factor? Of course, either problem can lead to the other–if I stop listening because I’m not interested, eventually I may start feeling dumb because I don’t understand (and vice versa).

    But which is primary? Does it depend on the kid? Does it really matter which is primary, or the solution the same regardless–either get the kid interested first (if you’re in the motivational camp), or make them feel successful first (if you’re in the cognitive camp).

  34. on 19 Jun 2013 at 1:58 pmBeth C.

    Amazing post. Brilliantly written…Thank you for the inspiration and suggestions on how to make curiosity come alive in the math classroom! I am seriously inspired to keep on keepin’ on!

  35. [...] Dan Meyer – The Unengageables: [...]

  36. on 23 Jun 2013 at 11:01 amKate Nowak

    I’d add to the “steps we can take to acclimate our students gradually to new ways of learning math” this:

    Corny as it sounds, don’t give up. The first and second and tenth attempt at -whatever it is that’s a very different approach in your class – a 3Act, a project, a whatever it is — is probably going to either fall flat or fail spectacularly. The kids might get mad and weirdly uncooperative. Things might happen that you didn’t anticipate and don’t have the skills to handle. You aren’t going to get good at planning them until you get some experience planning them. You’re going to suck at this for a while.

    The worst thing to do is freak out because you think no one learned anything and go back to your comfort zone. If I hear one more time “Oh I tried something like that once, it was a disaster, so it’s not for me or my kids,” I might pop that person in the mouth. ONCE? Weak. So weak. Stop freaking out. Notice and celebrate little authentic victories over broad, superficial ones. Don’t try to do something radically new every day — pick a thing and do it once a week for a whole semester. You need to keep stretching the rubber band over and over until it loosens up and doesn’t snap back all the way.

  37. on 24 Jun 2013 at 6:05 amFranklin

    It seems that an assumption that runs throughout the blog and its comments is that the problems of the classroom – among which the primary is low student achievement – can be largely solved by changes in pedagogical technique. (If I’ve mischaracterized anyone, I do apologize.)

    I do understand why that assumption would be present here. This is a place where teachers congregate (I among them), and we of course look to change what we control.

    I do grant that there’s some truth to this assumption. Some technique is better than others, and we teachers ought to all strive to continually improve in this regard. But the primary cause of low student achievement has its root cause outside the classroom. This is documented is great detail in Uri Treisman’s 2013 “Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize” address. If you haven’t yet watched it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

    If this is so – if the problems of the classroom have their root outside the classroom – then the solution will not come by change in classroom technique. I do not suggest that we teachers should become quiescent and simply accept the status quo. I suggest instead that we ought to do what we can to change the world outside the classroom. This is our duty as teachers and as citizens.

    To put it a bit dramatically, we should be on the streets. And our students should be there with us. I had hoped that the OWS movement would grow into a force sufficient to remake our country and make it more just. But it seems to have fizzled. Perhaps we can reignite the spark.

  38. on 24 Jun 2013 at 1:33 pmDan Meyer

    Hi Franklin, thanks for the feedback here. FWIW, I’ve seen Treisman’s talk three times. I appreciated his careful parsing of our roles both as citizens and as teachers. As citizens, we clearly need to advocate for better opportunities for students, opportunities that aren’t limited by the random location of a student’s birth.

    If this is so – if the problems of the classroom have their root outside the classroom – then the solution will not come by change in classroom technique.

    I don’t think Treisman lets us off the hook in our role as teachers to the same extent you do. As a teacher, I can’t ensure students are well-fed, living with a supportive family or included in a positive peer group outside my classroom. Agreed, there. But this particular post takes teachers to task for their conviction that some students are simply beyond engagement. That attitude lies completely within a teacher’s own purview. It should be challenged and corrected.

  39. [...] The Unengageables [...]

  40. [...] a month ago, Dan Meyer authored a blog post entitled The Unengageables in which he shared four “secret skepticisms” of teachers who attend his [...]

  41. [...] think many of us know the power of having students put some estimations up before launching in to the problem. See, they know how [...]

  42. […] The Unengageables is a must-read post by Dan Meyer. It’s specifically talking about math, but much of what he says (and links to) related to motivation issues across all classes. […]

  43. on 03 Dec 2013 at 8:01 amXavier

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I think this sketches very well the actual situation of teaching. Very well, Dan.

    Xavier.