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Engagement in Math: Three Places to Start

Mark Chubb, today on Twitter:

If a teacher sees students as disengaged and not liking math, what would be one good thing to watch, one good thing to read, one good thing to try?

Watch: Beyond Relevance & Real World.
Read: Why Don’t Students Like School?
Try: Estimation180.

Andrea Davis, later today in the comments:

Will you please give me the top three pieces of advice you have for the teachers of our youngest learners? We are K-6 and want to start now.

One, ask informal, relational questions (questioning, estimating, arguing, defining, etc.) as often as formal, operational questions (solving, calculating, simplifying).

Two, pose problems that have gaps in them – look up headless problems, tailless problems, and numberless problems, for three examples – and ask students to help you fill in those gaps. The most interesting problems are co-developed by teachers and students, not merely assigned in completed form by the teacher.

Three, before any explanation, create conditions that prepare students to learn from that explanation. These for example.


What are your suggestions for Andrea and Mark?

Featured Comments

Tim Teaches Math:


Let’s try to describe a big number using a small amount of syllables (Berry’s Paradox). For example, 777777 takes 20 syllables, but saying “777 times 1001” takes 15. For a number like “741” which is seven syllables, “Nine cubed plus twelve” is much better. More complicated expressions test our perception of order of operations. Have students come up with a scoring system to rank abbreviations.

Sarah Giek:

Read: Mathematical Mindsets
Watch: Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching.
Try: Number Talk Images

The Problem with Multiple Representations


I propose we add a representation to the holy trinity of graphs, equations, and tables: “backwards blue graphs.” Have a look.


Expert mathematicians and math teachers instantly see the uselessness of the backwards blue graph representation. It offers us no extra insight into or power over the data. But my suspicion is that many students feel that way about all the representations. They’re all the backwards blue graphs.

Students will dutifully and even capably create tables, equations, and graphs but do they understand the advantages that each one affords us? Or do they just understand that their grades depend on capably creating each representation?

At Desmos, we created Playing Catch-Up to put students in a place to experience the power of equations over other representations. Namely, equations offer us precision.

So we show students a scenario in which Julio Jones get a head start over Rich Eisen, but runs at half speed.


We ask students to extend a graph to determine when Rich will catch Julio.


We ask students to extend a table to answer the same question.


Finally we offer them these equations.


Our intent with this three-screen instructional sequence is to put teachers in a place to have a conversation with students about one advantage equations have over the other representations. They offer us more precision and confidence in our answer.

Without that conversation, graphs, tables, and equations all may as well be the backwards blue graphs.

Your Turn

The power of equations is precision. We put students in a place to experience that power by asking them to make predictions using the imprecise representations first.

In what ways are graphs uniquely powerful? Tables? How will you put students in a place to experience those powers?


Principles to Actions is great here:

Students should be able to approach a problem from several points of view and be encouraged to switch among representations until they are able to understand the situation and proceed along a path that will lead them to a solution. This implies that students view representations as tools that they can use to help them solve problems, rather than as an end in themselves.

Featured Comment

Sue Hellman:

I think an analogy here are the 3 ‘representations’ of location/directions provided by Google: a map, written directions, and street view. They all provide similar or at least related information but each offers advantages depending on the purpose and background knowledge of the user.

Katie Waddle:

I’ve noticed that kids who get the click that they all are connected understand stuff down the road a lot better, so I build in explicit teaching around seeing those connections (where is the y-intercept in the table? how can I see the slope in the equation?). It would be neat if kids could color code and write on things in this exercise, but computers are not good at letting you add stuff like that.

What I’m Working on the Day After the Election

Every morning, the four members of the teaching team at Desmos post a note to their Slack channel listing all the tasks they’re working on that day. We use the hashtag #workingon for easy reference. This is what I posted this morning.

I don’t know how any of you voted and I won’t make assumptions. (It’s clear that a lot of people who represented themselves one way to pollsters voted another way, and that likely holds true for our company as well.) But you may have voted like I did yesterday, leaving you bereft today, and struggling to locate some kind of purpose for your work, struggling to participate in the solution to a problem that has many names. If that’s you, then this what I’m telling myself about our work this morning.

If the name of that problem is economic anxiety, if President-elect Trump was propelled to power by people whom globalization, open borders, and free trade have left behind, I encourage us to locate political and social solutions to their problems, definitely, but also to help those people (and their children, particularly) learn better math better. Capitalists continue to automate routine manual jobs, leaving behind more and more non-routine cognitive jobs. Non-routine math tasks are difficult to design, difficult to teach, difficult to learn, and increasingly essential to full economic participation. We can help design them and we can give teachers tools to make them easier to teach.


If the name of that problem is bigotry, then we should help teachers facilitate constructive arguments, cultivate empathy, and emphasize patience. One dimension of bigotry is impatience, a sense that “I know everything there is to know about a person based on his or her most easily observed characteristics.” The traditions of many math classes – completing short problems resulting in simple answers that are easily verified in the back of the textbook – only exacerbate this problem. Christopher Danielson’s “Which One Doesn’t Belong,” by contrast, invites students to realize that all of those objects don’t belong for one reason or another, that we can negotiate those reasons productively, and that we can understand the world through the eyes of another.


Obviously we have lots of work to do in our neighborhoods, our churches, our social networks, our local and state governments, and in ourselves, work that is probably larger than anything we’ll do at Desmos today. But if yesterday’s election left you wondering what work you can do at Desmos to help solve a problem with many names, this is what I’m #workingon.

BTW. I’m watching Twitter for examples of math teachers helping their students understand where they live today. I’ll continue to update this post throughout the day.

Matt Enlow:

When you learn mathematics, you also learn a lot of other things. Here are three of those things.

John Golden:

We did Elizabeth Statmore’s talking points for Math Mindsets Chapter 7 (tracking), then for the election, then we looked at Megan Schmidt’s Social Justice Math slides.

wwntd offers her classes some words of consolation.

Dianna Hazelton asks her class:

What does the word empathy mean? How do you show empathy?

How I’m Learning to Step into Math Problems

The biggest inhibitor to my development as a math teacher is that I don’t teach or do math enough. That should make plenty of sense.

I’ve ramped up my teaching since fall with regular (okay, monthly) sessions at a local San Francisco high school. Opportunities to do math are bit easier to find and a bit easier to wedge into empty corners of my day than classroom teaching.

I was grateful, for example, that Jennifer Wilson built plenty of time for doing math into her workshop today at North Carolina’s state math education conference. She posed this problem (source unknown) and I experienced two insights into how I experience mathematical insights.


First, I approximate an answer. I recognize that the diameter of the circle will be larger than the side of the square. That’s because I can draw the diameter in my imagination and compare the lengths, and also because I know that chords in a circle are never longer than the diameter. I’m guessing the diameter is around 25 units, not more than 30, and not less than 21.

Second, I try to figure out what makes the thing this thing rather than some other thing. I don’t have any details about how the square was constructed. The circle could be any circle, but what makes that square that square? I need to construct it myself. I start changing the square’s location and scale in my head, asking myself, “Is this square legal? What about this square?”

Here is what I see in my head:


When the square becomes legal at the end, I hear an actual “ding” inside my brain. That’s when all the constraints make sense to me and I can start writing down variables and relationships.


That last “20 – r” was only possible because of the exercise of mentally making different illegal and legal squares.

From there, I trotted over to Desmos with a Pythagorean relationship in my hand.


Because I had approximated right and wrong answers earlier, I knew that 12.5 was too low. I realized that was the radius so I doubled it for the diameter.

I think these techniques are what Piggott and Woodham call “stepping into the problem.”

Here visualisations are used to help with understanding what the problem is about. The visualisation gives pupils the space to go deep into the situation to clarify and support their understanding before any generalisation can happen.

At least that’s the best term I can coax from the Internet. I don’t know if Polya’s work on problem solving speaks to that practice directly.

  • If you have another name for that process, let us know it.
  • If you’ve made mathematical problem solving a part of your development as a teacher, let us know how.
  • And if you have an interesting problem to share, let us know about that too.

I’ll leave you with this awesome little number from Brilliant. I promise you can solve it.


Featured Comments

William Carey:

If you ask a literature teacher what book they read most recently for pleasure and they don’t have an answer that’d be really worrying. But I bet it’s pretty rare. If you ask a math teacher what math problem they most recently worked through for pleasure, I bet the results are much scarier.

Lori M:

For decades, there has been a focus in ELA classes around a push that teachers who read, know how to teach (and reach) readers. Let’s start a similar movement among math educators.

Dick Fuller:

With some over simplification, real problems are not about mathematics, certainly not about arithmetic. The problem is the formulation of the problem. To suggest a problem is particular to values of parameters points toward evaluation as the critical component of its solution. It is not. Evaluation is particularization of a general formulation. A bald assertion: this is at the root of the difficulty students have with “real” problems.

Simon Gregg offers his own solution and then links to a fascinating question about perimeter.

[Pseudocontext Saturday] Mazes

This Week’s Installment



What mathematical skill is the textbook trying to teach with this image?

Pseudocontext Saturday #2

  • Using properties of symmetry (33%, 134 Votes)
  • Calculating the area of quadrilaterals (28%, 114 Votes)
  • Completing the square (20%, 80 Votes)
  • Identifying rational and irrational numbers (19%, 76 Votes)

Total Voters: 404

Loading ... Loading ...

(If you’re reading via email or RSS, you’ll need to click through to vote.)


Every Saturday, I post an image from a math textbook. It’s an image that implicitly or explicitly claims that “this is how we use math in the world!”

I post the image without its mathematical connection and offer four possibilities for that connection. One of them is the textbook’s. Three of them are decoys. You guess which connection is real.

After 24 hours, I update the post with the answer. If a plurality of the commenters picks the textbook’s connection, one point goes to Team Commenters. If a plurality picks one of my decoys, one point goes to Team Me. If you submit a mathematical question in the comments about the image that isn’t pseudocontext, collect a personal point.

(See the rationale for this exercise.)

Current Scoreboard

Team Me: 1
Team Commenters: 0



The judges rule this pseudocontext because, given that awesome square maze, it’s very unlikely that anyone would wonder about the side length of the maze and unlikelier still that anyone would wonder if the side length was rational or irrational. An exhaustive search for a 1,225 ft2 square maze in Dallas, TX, produced no results, exacerbating the judges’ sense that the textbook is exploiting the world for the sake of math. That’s pseudocontext.