Category: tech enthusiasm

Total 113 Posts

Orchestrate More Productive Mathematics Discussions with Desmos Snapshots

Let me describe a powerful teaching tool we just released and the company values that compelled us to build it.

First, let’s acknowledge that statements of values are often useless. Values are only useful if they help people make hard decisions. Our company values should (a) help educators decide how we’re different from other math edtech companies, (b) help us decide how to spend our limited time in the world. So here is one of our values:

We believe that math class should be social and creative – that students should create mathematics in every form and then share those creations with each other and their teachers.

Many other companies disagree with those values, or at least they spend their limited time in the world acting on different ones. For example, many other companies think it’s sufficient for students to create multiple choice and numerical responses to express their mathematical thinking and to share those responses with a grading algorithm alone.

Our values conflict, and the result is that other companies spend their time optimizing adaptive grading algorithms while we spend our time thinking about ways to provoke mathematical creativity that algorithms can’t grade at all. We may both work in “math edtech” but we are on very different paths, and our path recently led us to a very thorny question:

What should teachers do with all these expressions of mathematical creativity that algorithms can’t grade?

Let’s say we ask students an interesting question about mathematics or we ask them to define a relationship and sketch its graph. That’s good math, but the teacher now has dozens of written answers and sketches that their computers can’t grade.

Other math edtech software offers teachers scarce insight into the ways students think mathematically. We offer teachers abundant insight which is a different kind of problem, and just as serious. We’ve spent months building a solution to this problem of abundance and we likely would have spent years if not for one book:

Mary Kay Stein and Margaret Smith’s Five Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions.

Smith and Stein describe five teaching practices that promote student learning through summary discussions. Teachers should (1) anticipate ideas students will produce during a task or activity and then (2) monitor student work during class for those ideas and others that weren’t anticipated. Then the teacher should (3) select a subset of those interesting student ideas, (4) sequence the order of their presentation, and then help students (5) connect them.

In our classroom observations of our activities, we noticed teachers struggling to select student ideas because there were so many of them streaming from the students’ heads into the teacher’s dashboard. Sometimes teachers would make a note about an idea they wanted to select later, but when “later” came around, the student had already developed the idea further. So then we saw teachers take screenshots of that idea and paste them into slide software for sequencing. Smith and Stein’s recommendations are already ambitious and our software was not making it easier for teachers to enact them.

So we built “Snapshots.”

If you see interesting ideas at any time during an activity, press the camera icon next to it.

Then go to the “Snapshots” tab.

Sequence the ideas by dragging them into a collection.

Add a comment or a question to help students connect their classmates’ ideas to the main ideas of the lesson.

Then press “Present.”

We tested the tool ourselves during a summer school session in Berkeley, CA, and also with teachers around the country. What we’ve noticed is that students pay much more attention to discussions when the discussion isn’t about a page from the textbook or a worked example from the teacher but about ideas from the students themselves.

It’s the difference between “Let me tell you about a really useful strategy for multiplying two-digit number” and “Let me show you some useful strategies from around the class for multiplying two-digit numbers. They’re all correct. Decide which seems like less work to you.”

Here are some of our other favorite uses from the last month of testing.

Match the diagram to the expression.

Which of these answers are equivalent? How do you know?

Values help us all decide how to spend our limited time in the world, and nobody feels those limits quite like classroom teachers. Teachers frequently, and with good cause, evaluate new ideas and innovations by asking, “Does my class have time for this? What will we have to skip if we do this?”

Your decision to spend your limited class time talking about your ideas, your textbook’s ideas, or your students’ ideas is a loud expression of your values. Students hear it. We hope your students hear how much you value their mathematical creativity, explicitly in your words and implicitly in how you spend your time. You bring those values. We’ll keep working on tools to help you live them out in your classroom every day.

The Desmos Teaching Faculty Is Hiring!

2018 Jun 16: We will close this particular posting Saturday, June 23, 11:59PM Pacific.

My team at Desmos is hiring!

You should share that link with anyone who might be a good fit for the work. Alternately, if you think you’re a good fit for the work, you should guard that posting with your life, share it with nobody, and start thinking about your cover letter.

Why you should apply is really simple:

Desmos is the best place to do great work in math edtech right now and for the foreseeable future.

Here are six reasons I’m pulling out of muscle memory. I’m not even thinking about them. Ask me in ten minutes and I’ll give you six more just as fast.

  • Teachers and students love our work. Check our Twitter feed. Also we just wrapped up a pilot study of 44 teachers using our activities and the results exceeded all of our expectations.
  • Desmos folk are enormously talented in their own areas, curious and humble in all the others. So while my team didn’t come to Desmos having studied the same fields as our software developers and product designers (or vice versa) we’re conversationally fluent in each other’s work and humble about the limitations of that fluency. That disposition results in extremely enjoyable and productive collaboration.
  • Great work-life balance. Startups are notoriously unfriendly to families but all of the full-time folk on my team have a couple of kids or more. Each one will tell you they love Desmos’s flexibility to do their best work at negotiable hours and locations.
  • Everyone at Desmos is really satisfied with how we handle meetings and remote work, according to an internal company survey earlier this month. That’s uncommon.
  • Strong financial position. While other edtech companies take on as much venture capital as they can, mortgaging their ability to make important decisions for themselves, Desmos has worked hard to minimize its reliance on outside investment. The result is that my team has had time and freedom to make decisions, first, based on what works for math students and, second, based on what we can sell. (Example: we decided to invest heavily in making our graphing calculator accessible to vision-impaired students because we thought that reducing an impediment to mathematical thinking sounded like a really good idea. Afterwards, we turned that work into contracts with eighteen states with more on the way.)
  • Glassdoor reviews that speak for themselves.

We’ve spent several years tuning up our model for math, education, and technology. We studied it over the last three months and various aspects have clicked right into place. Demand is heating up for that work so we’re looking for people to help us build.

So please check out the posting and think about applying or sending it to someone you know.

BTW. If the formatting of the job posting seems atypical, it’s because we spent a lot of time discussing Lever’s blog series on reducing hiring bias. It would be easy to write a list of required credentials based on our mental profile of an ideal candidate. But that mental profile would be extremely susceptible to implicit and explicit biases. Lever received more responses from a more diverse group of candidates when they focused less on their credentials and more on what they’d need to know for the work and what they’d do at different milestones in their first year.

For example, an earlier draft of our posting required “at least five years of teaching experience at grades 6-12,” which isn’t bad as far as credentials go, but we realized it’s really just a proxy for the first four bullets beneath “What you should show up ready to teach anyone on your first day.”

  • What a day in the life of a public middle- or high-school teacher looks like in the United States.
  • The major challenges of technology integration in US classrooms from the perspective of both students and teachers.
  • What separates a great math lesson from a lousy math lesson.
  • What separates great classroom technology from lousy classroom technology.

We’re grateful to Lever for opening up their hiring practices to the public.

Must Read: Larry Berger’s Confession & Question About Personalized Learning

Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, offers a fantastic distillation of the promises of digital personalized learning and how they are undone by the reality of learning:

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

If you’re anywhere adjacent to digital personalized learning – working at an edtech company, teaching in a personalized learning school, in a romantic relationship with anyone in those two categories – you should read this piece.

Berger closes with an excellent question to guide the next generation of personalized learning:

What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?

My best teachers knew what I knew. They understood what I understood about whatever I was learning in a way that algorithms in 2018 cannot touch. And they used their knowledge not to suggest the next “learning object” in a sequence but to challenge me in whatever I was learning then.

“Okay you think you know this pretty well. Let me ask you this.”

What’s your answer to Berger’s question?

BTW. It’s always the right time to quote Begle’s Second Law:

Mathematics education is much more complicated than you expected even though you expected it to be more complicated than you expected.

Featured Comment


I have come to believe that all learning is personalized not because of what the teacher does but because of what’s happening inside the learner’s brain. Whatever pedagogical choices a teacher makes, it’s the student’s work that causes new neural networks to be created and pre-existing ones to be augmented or strengthened or broken or pruned.

Scott Farrand:

I’ll accept the risk of stating the obvious: my best teachers cared about me, and I felt that. Teaching is an act of love. A teacher who cares about each student is much more likely to, in that instant after a student responds to a question, find the positive value in the response and communicate encouragement to the student, verbally and nonverbally. And students who feel cared for are more likely to have good things going on in their brains, as described by SueH.

Desmos + Two Truths and a Lie

I’m absolute junk in the kitchen but I’m trying to improve. I marvel at the folks who go off recipe, creating delicious dishes by sight and feel. That’s not me right now. But I’m also not content simply to chop vegetables for somebody else.

I love the processes in the middle – like seasoning and sautéing. I can use that process in lots of different recipes, extending it in lots of different ways. It’s the right level of technical challenge for me right now.

In the same way, I’m enamored lately of instructional routines. These routines are sized somewhere between the routine administrative work of taking attendance and the non-routine instructional work of facilitating an investigation or novel problem. Just like seasoning and sautéing, they’re broadly useful techniques, so every minute I spend learning them is a minute very well spent.

For example, Estimation 180 is an instructional routine that helps students develop their number sense in the world. Contemplate then Calculate helps students understand the structure of a pattern before calculating its quantities. Which One Doesn’t Belong helps students understand how to name and argue about the names of mathematical objects.

(Aside: it’s been one of greatest professional pleasures of my life to watch so many of these routines begin and develop online, in our weirdo tweeting and blogging communities, before leaping to more mainstream practice.)

I first encountered the routine “Two Truths and a Lie” in college when new, nervous freshmen would share two truths about themselves and one lie, and other freshmen would try to guess the lie.

Marian Small and Amy Lin adapted that icebreaker into an instructional routine in their book More Good Questions. I heard about it from Jon Orr and yesterday we adapted that routine into our Challenge Creator technology at Desmos.

We invite each student to create their own object – a circle graph design in primary; a parabola in secondary.

We ask the student to write three statements about their object – two that are true, and one that is a lie. They describe why it’s a lie.

Here are three interesting statements from David Petro’s circle graph design. Which is the lie?

  • The shaded part is the same area as the non shaded part.
  • If these were pizzas, there is a way for three people to get the same amount when divided.
  • If you double the image you could make a total of 5 shaded circles.

And three from Sharee Herbert’s interesting parabola. Which is the lie?

  • The axis of symmetry is y=-2.
  • The y-intercept is negative.
  • The roots are real.

Then we put that thinking in a box, tie a bow around it, and slide it into your class gallery.

The teacher encourages the students to use the rest of their time to check out their classmates’ parabolas and circle graphs, separate lies from truth, and see if everybody agrees.

Our experience with Challenge Creator is that the class gets noisy, that students react to one another’s challenges verbally, starting and settling mathematical arguments at will. It’s beautiful.

So feel free to create a class and use these with your own students:

2018 Feb 6. I added eight more Two Truths & a Lie activities on suggestions from y’all!

BTW. Unfortunately, Challenge Creator doesn’t have enough polish for us to release it publicly yet. But I’d be happy to make a few more TTL activities if y’all wanted to propose some in the comments.

Challenge Creator & the Desmos Classroom


  • At Desmos, we’re now asking ourselves one question about everything we make: “Will this help teachers develop social and creative classrooms?” We’ve chosen those adjectives because they’re simultaneously qualities of effective learning and also interesting technology.
  • We’ve upgraded three activities (and many more to come) with our new Challenge Creator feature: Parabola Slalom, Laser Challenge, and Point Collector: Lines. Previously, students would only complete challenges we created. Now they’ll create challenges for each other.
  • The results from numerous classroom tests have been – I am not kidding you here – breathtaking. Near unanimous engagement. Interactions between students around mathematical ideas we haven’t seen in our activities before.

Read More

One question in edtech bothers us more than nearly any other:

Why are students so engaged by their tablets, phones, and laptops outside of class and so bored by them inside of class?

It’s the same device. But in one context, students are generally enthusiastic and focused. In the other, they’re often apathetic and distracted.

At Desmos, we notice that, outside of class, students use their devices in ways that are social and creative. They create all kinds of media – text messages, videos, photos, etc. – and they share that media with their peers via social networks.

You might think that comparison is unfair – that school could never stack up next to Instagram or Snapchat – but before we write it off, let’s ask ourselves, “How social and creative is math edtech?” What do students create and whom do they share those creations with?

In typical math edtech, students create number responses and multiple choice answers. And they typically share those creations with an algorithm, a few lines of code. In rarer cases, their teacher will see those creations, but more often the teacher will only see the grade the algorithm gave them.

For those reasons, we think that math edtech is generally anti-social and uncreative, which explains some of the apathy and distraction we see when students use technology inside of class.

Rather than write off the comparison to Instagram and Snapchat as unreasonable, it has motivated us to ask two more questions:

  1. How can we help students create mathematically in more diverse ways?

So we invite students to create parking lots, scale giants, mathematical arguments, tilings, sketches of relationships, laser configurations, drawings of polygons, tables, stacks of cards, Marbleslides, informal descriptions of mathematical abstractions, sequences of transformations, graphs of the world around them, and many more.

  1. How can we help teachers and students interact socially around those creations?

So we collect all of those creations on a teacher dashboard and we give teachers a toolkit and strategies to help them create conversations around those creations. It’s easier to ask your students, “How are these two sketches the same? How are they different?” when both sketches are right in front of you and you’re able to pause your class to direct their focus to that conversation.

Today, we’re releasing a new tool to help teachers develop social and creative math classrooms.

Challenge Creator

Previously in our activities, students would only complete challenges we created and answer questions we asked. With Challenge Creator, they create challenges for each other and ask each other questions.

We tried this in one of our first activities, Waterline, where, first, we asked students to create a graph based on three vases we gave them.

And then we asked them to create a vase themselves. If they could successfully graph the vase, it went into a gallery where other students would try to graph it also.

We began to see reports online of students’ impressive creativity and perseverance on that particular challenge. We started to suspect the following: that students care somewhat when they share their creations with an algorithm, and care somewhat more when they share their creations with their teacher.

But they care enormously when they share their creations with each other.

So we’ve added “Challenge Creators” to three more activities, and we now have the ability to add them to any activity in a matter of hours where it first took us a month.

In Parabola Slalom, we ask students to find equations of parabolas that slip in between the gates on a slalom course. And now we invite them to create slalom courses for each other. Those challenges can be as difficult as the authors want, but unless they can solve it, no one else will see it.

In Laser Challenge, we ask students to solve reflection challenges that we created. And now we invite them to create reflection challenges for each other.

In Point Collector, we ask students to use linear inequalities to capture blue points in the middle of a field of points. And now we invite them to create a field of points for each other.

We’ve tested each of these extensively with students. In those tests we saw:

  • Students calling out their successes to each other from across the room. “Javi, I got a perfect score on yours!”
  • Students calling out their frustrations to each other from across the room. “Cassie, how do you even do that?”
  • Students introducing themselves to each other through their challenges. “Who is Oscar?”
  • Students differentiating their work. “Let’s find an easy one. Oo – Jared’s.”
  • Students looking at solutions to challenges they’d already completed, and learning new mathematical techniques. “You can do that?!”
  • Students marveling at each others’ ingenuity. “Damn, Oscar. You hella smart.”
  • Proud creation. One student said, “We’re going to make our challenge as hard as possible,” to which his partner responded, “But we have to be able to solve it!”
  • Screams and high fives so enthusiastic you’d think we were paying them.

At the end of one test of Point Collector, we asked students, “What was your favorite part of the activity?” 25 out of 27 students said some version of “Solving other people’s challenges.”

I’m not saying what we saw was on the same level of enthusiasm and focus as Instagram or Snapchat.

But it wasn’t that far off, either.

Questions We Can Answer

How much does it cost?

As with everything else we make that’s free for you to use now, we will never charge you for it.

Will we be able to create our own Challenge Creators?

Eventually, yes. Currently, the Triple C (Challenge Creator Creator, obv.) has too many rough edges to release widely. Once those edges are sanded down, we’ll release it. We don’t have a timeline for that work, but just as we think student work is at its best when it’s social and creative, we think teacher work is at its best under those exact same conditions. We want to give teachers the best toolkit possible and enable them to share their creations with each other.

Questions We Can’t Answer

What effect does asking a student to create a challenge have on her learning and her interest in learning?

What sorts of challenges are most effective? Is this approach just as effective for arithmetic expressions as laser challenges?

Does posing your own problem help you understand the limits of a concept better than if you only complete someone else’s problems?

Researchers, grad students, or any other parties interested in those same questions: please get in touch.