Make It Better pt. two

What We Did Last Time

Last issue, we imposed some order on Jeffrey’s slidedeck, turning the first set into the second.

In the process, we improved readability but, almost more importantly, by placing design elements consistently from slide to slide, we made it easier for the audience to concentrate on what matters (the numbers and text) and ignore what doesn’t (where the numbers and text are located).

Does This Matter To Teaching?

I suspect a lot of teacher-readers are hopping past these design posts. This isn’t necessarily a mistake. There isn’t enough time in the day to chase all our interests and design might not ping loudly enough off your radar.

But, friend, design had better ping somewhere. Because these days, How Good Your Ideas Are has yielded some ground to How Good Your Ideas Look.

These moments break my heart at conferences: a speaker whose ideas are head, shoulders, knees, and toes above the rest but whose dress code, timid vocals, or sloppy PowerPoint put people off.

It Does.

This happens.

You have a great activity or handout (great content) but you package it with a lousy verbal introduction or a lousy handout design (lousy form) and it flops.

Here you can say, “my kids have some obligation to meet me part way on this one,” that they should lean in towards you, compensating for how your weak instructional design has leaned away from them. Maybe they should. Most won’t.

The Good Kind Of Worksheet

Here are three worksheets randomly selected from the pile I built last year:

They are tiny by intention. Their content is less important than what they look like.

The Other Kind Of Worksheet

Here’s the sort of worksheet I see floating around the department copier:

The Difference

With good worksheets, things that don’t matter become invisible. With bad worksheets things that don’t matter glare at you.

What doesn’t matter:

  1. fonts
  2. alignment
  3. spacing
  4. location
  5. etc.

What does matter:

  1. the task.
  2. that’s all.

With the bad worksheet you can’t help but linger on everything that doesn’t matter. The awkward non-alignment of “name” and “date.” The varying spacing between lines. The second line of the second problem which hangs awkwardly.

None of those elements matter. Only the task matters but those sloppy elements have kept me from getting to it. The sloppiness is sloshing the pail, if you will.

With the first set of worksheets, things that don’t matter are kept constant. You’ve got space for a name .5 inches from the top of the page. The title of the worksheet is .25 inches off the left. A dividing line sits 1.26 inches from the top.

This is because I don’t care about any of these things. I don’t want my students to waste our time or their mental energy searching for the title or the name space or the first question.

I don’t want them pondering my font selection so I keep the font consistent (Block Berthold for title, Georgia for body text).

I keep alignment consistent. I use the “distribute space evenly” command constantly.

All of these efforts at a consistent template means we we get working on what matters quickly. We keep that pail full.

This school year, build your first worksheet with great intention. Make it something you can live with the entire year through. Then when you go to make a second worksheet, open your first one, save a copy, and find yourself changing only what’s important.

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


  1. This teacher is not skipping the design posts. I’m learning a lot & trying to put into my practice, so keep them coming! Thanks.

  2. These posts have been great. I have to say I’m a lot more judgmental about presentations now (and as it’s the beginning of the school year I’ve had a lot of opportunity to judge).

    I’m presenting at a conference in November and I’ll be looking back here as I get ready for it. Thanks!

  3. Yesterday I unifyied the fonts on all my handouts.

    Last night I recreated my parent letter in the spirit of your 4-slide competition. Those things don’t get read, not really, so here’s 4 images, two sentences with each, and my signature on the bottom.

    I’m in this would-Dan-approve-of-my-design spiral. Not sure which direction the spiral moves.

  4. Dan’s just overjoyed that design is getting some consideration ’round these circles. Inch by inch, I swear this stuff makes kids’ lives better.

  5. you’re doing outstanding work; keep ’em coming.

    with that said, i intend to rant against … well …
    pretty much your entire message. somebody should.

    you say it breaks your heart when the folks
    with the most important message fail to connect
    because of their weak presentation skills.
    i feel your pain. it hurts me too.
    can we consider the possibility that at least *part*
    of the problem in at least *some* such cases
    might be “the audience’s listening skills”
    rather than “the speaker’s presentation”?

    because, from this point of view, as it seems to me,
    you’ve essentially decided to become *part of the problem*.

    look. nearly anybody here, or so i hope,
    would probably agree with me that the
    *really* cool kids aren’t the smart-dressing
    in-crowd but the geeks who read for fun.

    dressing for success *is* vital … for some values of “success”.
    it’s perfectly reasonable to say, in effect,
    along with any number of people i respect
    and even admire, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.
    but, as far as i can see, “joining ’em” will *necessarily*
    include looking down on the geeks (or anyway,
    accepting this behavior — which is still oppression!):
    there can *be* no “in-group” without an “out-group”.
    so part of the price of admission will be that
    the geeks resent your choice.

    now, all by itself, this is a pretty small price to pay.
    i’d betray a wilderness of geeks for about $1.37.
    trouble is, i’d have sold my soul to satan.
    i’m not going to go joining the business party
    just because they have all the best toys.
    it’s too much fun being me.

  6. All due respect, you’ve extrapolated seven paragraphs from one sentence and the result is a bit pixelated. You’re accurate in a coupla spots and way off in others.

    I am just – as so many have said to dodge the consequences of their words – telling it like it is.

    Your ideas are good but if you can’t speak ’em without stuttering you’ll miss your audience.

    Your ideas are good but if you can’t illustrate them clearly, you’ll miss your audience.

    Your ideas are good but if you pace the stage in a giant hot dog costume, a line of ketchup running from neck to navel, you’ll miss your audience.

    And within each of those – speech, illustration, presence – there are hundreds of variables.

    Do I think audience’s oughtta just get over it and suss out the best of every teacher for itself? Yeah. I think our reflexive desire for entertainment before education is a little sad.

    But I map out, illustrate, and rehearse a presentation with the assumption that my audience isn’t going to help at all. Because how good my ideas look matters a lot, even alongside how good my ideas are.

    I’m not gonna be a martyr here for audience reform. What I have to say is too important to me.

  7. dan:

    i’ve read quite a bit more of your stuff than you seem to think.
    (this is a complement to you, as i expect you realize).

    try this: if you change your message,
    you’ll lose, if not your audience, your reason
    to be speaking in the first place.

    i signed on as a math teacher and became
    however good i am at it now over the course
    of a longer period than i like to think about.
    meanwhile, a lot of math departments have committed
    (e.g.) to require students to buy “graphing calculators”.
    the curriculum is adjusted accordingly.
    this not only does nothing to make my job easier,
    it takes time (and student interest) *away*
    from what is necessarily a very limited budget
    to begin with. so too with, as far as i can see,
    pretty much any other computer application.

    not only do i not *want* to help the profiteers
    that have hijacked the academy to sell their products,
    i’m not even *qualified* to do so since i can
    never get the doggone things to work in the first place.
    what i *can* do, and still very often get a chance to do,
    is get students to understand more mathematics by talking
    with them about mathematics. not something our
    society values a whole lot, i’ll admit, but still:
    the product that the college actually goes out and sells.
    switching in some bloody demos, no matter how well-prepared,
    is bait-and-switch and i resent it.

    i’m never going to be much interested in selling.
    speech & presence & suchlike variables …
    heck yes. i’ve put in a lot of time working on ’em
    and hope to continue to improve my skills
    over the whole rest of my working life.
    bring a computer into the deal, though,
    and you’ve *changed the subject*.
    part of the gospel i preach is:
    *you* can do this … with paper and pencil.

    you just seem to take it for granted that
    high-tech *has* to be part of the picture.
    i guess that’s what all the rantage has been about.
    this has been a very *harmful* assumption
    in math ed in my opinion (a well-informed
    and carefully considered opinion, i’ll go ahead and add).

    there’s a good chance that this misrepresents
    *your* opinion; if so, maybe i’ve chosen
    an even worse place to do this ranting
    than i assumed a moment ago. or maybe not …
    after all, i must have hoped to find at least
    *some* chance of a sympathetic reading …

    anyway. thanks for your kind attention.
    i’ll leave you alone for at least awhile now
    (but i’ll be watching). yours in the struggle. v.

    oh, p.s. :
    i’m not nearly so sure as you seem to be
    that the guy in the hotdog will miss his audience …

  8. Not much disagreement here, only a clarification to say I’m not trying to alter the basic democracy of learning or teaching.

    I mean, if we’re talking about tech within learning, I’ve been kind of a jerk in the past, stubbornly resisting complication.

    If we’re talking about tech within teaching, though, I’m afraid I don’t see it as quite the pollutant you do. I’m not saying a teacher ain’t worth nothin’ without technology but the opposite is hardly true.

    i.e., my projector lets me put large images in front of my students’ eyes. My laptop lets me sequence them. This is nothing but great.

  9. Can we talk about the Pythagorean investigation?

    I know we can talk about form – that’s the nature of this post. The boxes for kids to write in, they seem tight. What do you intend them to write in the “Triangle” column? Would the teacher need to explain this?

    Is #2 really a question? Maybe you should tell them in #1 what they should find. And if it is a question, where should they write the answer? #3 & #4 appear to be a single item divided into two. Is there a reason?

    The spacing is very consistent. Should the spaces really be equal for items that need long response, short response, and no response? You’ve beaten visual “slosh,” but have you created cognitive slosh in its place?

    I have questions about the sheet’s content, but for another time.

  10. Yeah, this worksheet – this worksheet, in particular, I guess – wouldn’t hold up in a vacuum. “KIND OF TRIANGLE” was too awkward to write and fit in the blank so I had to talk about it.

    The rest, I dunno, feels like a lot of teacher preference. The question, “Can I split these up?” pops into my head way more often than, “Can I join these up?” I prefer simplicity and clarity for my students’ sake, even when it draaaawwws things out.

    And, yeah, I probably should’ve spaced these out to account for the length of response.

  11. We’re really in different directions here. I mean, I use consistent fonts and layouts, but in service of content. I provide space for response. No response, no space. Which means that there is some variety to my layouts. And I wouldn’t chose oral over written instructions because of something to do with formatting.

    I’d love for a (completely separate) pythagorean discussion to take place. But this is not the thread. Maybe I’ll start something.

  12. I do what Jonathan does and would love to hear your thoughts. I actually do pull up a preexisting worksheet and just change the content, but as Jonathan said the spacing depends on the response.

    During summer school this year, I used a much more consistent design for a daily sheet that had a space for the problem of the day, mental math, etc. Perhaps this is better?

    I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  13. Yeah, sorry I didn’t get back on this. It just seemed at the time kinda obvious. Like, yeah, an objective response question (“What’s the capital of Norway?”) deserves less space than an essay question.

    I don’t spend time pondering percentages, wondering if this response will take on average 23% more space than the previous question and then allot it 23% more white space on the page.

    Maybe this is sloppy design on my part. Maybe lack of room frustrates my students. But if questions require anywhere close to the same amount of space, I tend to just grant ’em equal and trust my students to flip over the page as required.

    If precision on this one is a priority, as it seems to be w/ Jonathan, you two are doing right by your personal codes of design conduct. Which, after first having a personal code, is probably the most important thing.

    Hope you stop by again.