Notes From Foo

Also: Why WCYDWT?

On the first night of Foo Camp, 250 attendees introduced themselves by name, affiliation, and three hashtags, and then descended on a gridded wall-tall conference schedule, scribbling down session titles, selecting venues, folding similar sessions into one another, scheduling roundtable discussions with people they had only met thirty minutes earlier over food.

The crowd was thick so I commandeered a Segway and steered it full-bore into the scrum, scattering people long enough to slide a session onto the closing day’s schedule: The Programming Principle That Will Save Math Education.

That’s three opportunities in three months (counting the webinar I’m conducting in October) that my patrons at O’Reilly have given me to throw a half-baked idea casserole at a bunch of really, really smart people and walk away with something quite a bit tastier.

The debate at an earlier session on the future of education was idealistic and high-minded with participants from all sectors trying to reach consensus (in sixty minutes) on merit pay, standardized testing, class size, unschooling, home schooling, charter schooling, public schooling, and probably several other intractable issues I’m now forgetting. I tried to approach my session, then, from two more assailable angles:

  1. math curriculum, which, for whatever it does right, doesn’t a) put students in any kind of place to apply mathematical reasoning to the world around them, or b) do anything to encourage patience with problems with complicated inputs and messy outputs, which is to say, most problems worth solving. Math curriculum, speaking generally, does the opposite of those two things.
  2. after we develop a model for good math curriculum, we don’t know how to share it.

The outcomes of merit pay and standardized testing will be decided in protracted, gruesome battles between various unions, legislators, and chancellors. The challenge of sharing good math curriculum, however, is one that the people attending my session – an intimidating array of talent, knowledge, and funding – could solve over lunch.

O’Reilly gave a blank notebook to the weekend’s participants. Not lined. Not quad-ruled. Blank. We talked about how you’d only give out lined or quad-ruled paper if you were sure the average attendee wouldn’t want to doodle.

I showed the participants how the Muji chronotebook shuns calendars and hour-blocks, opting instead for the least constrained approach to scheduling possible, a small clock in the middle of the page. This is the rule of least power, the programming principle that can save math education.

I won’t waste space here recapping my session notes. I drew heavily from these six posts:

  1. The Rule of Least Power: An Initial Approach
  2. Why I Don’t Use Your Textbook
  3. WCYDWT: Glassware
  4. WCYDWT: 2008 World Series of Poker
  5. Flight Control / Lesson Plan
  6. BetterLesson Reviewed

But I realized this: I flog WCYDWT media from whatever forum I’m offered not because I think WCYDWT media is the evolutionary pinnacle of math instruction. I do think WCYDWT is leagues better than the curricular norm, particularly compared to the kind of curriculum offered by the largest textbook publishers. More crucially, though, WCYDWT is the best model I know for classroom math instruction that can also leverage Internet distribution. I can use global publishing tools to infect other math teachers with these videos and photos. I can’t do the same thing with netbooks. I can’t do the same thing with physical manipulatives. I don’t know a better model of math instruction that I can also aerosolize so easily.

[Muji notebook photo credit]

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. So I can recall, back in the day (last summer), you asking for suggestions about conferences to go to. I suggested you would not enjoy CUE/ILC , and suggested BarCamp or another un-conference. I know that ILC was a bust for a number of reasons. What’s the vote on FooCamp, so I can see if I’m 2 for 2.

  2. Dan:

    I can’t tell you how jealous I am of you getting to be at Foo Camp. I wrote a blog post about 6 months ago that we need to have a camp like this for EdTech people. I even offered to host it on our campus in the Performing Arts Center. Foo Camp meets TED all geared to Education and the use of technology in education.

    The things that I have seen you do on your blog with Math and technology are awesome. The open text book initiative in the state and some of the things people are doing brought together in a series of texts that would be completely digital, open source and dynamic in nature. The only cost to the state is someone to make sure it is standards based. Individual teachers give their time and expertise to help all teachers statewide. All would be housed on a web site that only teachers could upload to.

    Just an idea taking things out to their logical conclusion.

    Kyle Brumbaugh

  3. Have you seen the new SpringBoard textbooks? I’m using it in my Alg. 1 and 2 class and I think it addresses some of your concerns about curriculum and textbooks. The Alg. 1 version has a stacks of cups lesson comparable to one of your posts.

  4. @Kyle & Maria,

    Here a few obstacles (as I see them) to reproducing FooCamp in the education sector:

    1. The O’Reilly name lends a certain kind of credibility to the event that I can’t find in our field. Pearson? McGraw-Hill? Arne Duncan? I don’t know.

    2. The event isn’t cheap for O’Reilly Media. The lawn and orchard space for tents was free but the catered food was not. The open, tended bar kept conversation running well into the night. The campus is gorgeous. There was 24-hour security in case (I suppose) a terrorist decided to take out the world’s largest assembled body of lolcat experts. O’Reilly threw a great, expensive party, to a certain extent, because it kept them surfing with their toes at the edge of the board of any subject they wanted.

    So it’s nice to offer a Redwood City campus for the event, and I know I’d attend, but I live forty-five minutes down the road. What would compel a teacher from the East Coast to pay airfare, room, and board to attend?

    Obviously, in light of those obstacles, EduCon has done pretty well for itself.

    @wb, I haven’t seen much on SpringBoard and Google is being unhelpful. Can you link me anything?

  5. Dan,

    Thank you for brainstorming! The reason I am asking these questions: Ihor from CLIME is organizing a Math 2.0 conference in San Diego this Spring: How do we make these events meaningful and, well, possible is a huge question.

    TED started in someone’s living room. O’Reilly wasn’t always a big name, either.

    Some unconferences attach themselves to big established conferences, which may be a way to go, judging from EduBloggerCon, NECC Unplugged and Constructivist Celebration, to name a few.

    So, about that Redwood City campus…

  6. Sounds like a great experience, and a good model for potential education conferences. I think there’s a lot the programming world gets right, much of iit not related directly to technology. Despite our supposed anti-social tendencies, geeks really do know how to organize and coordinate—better than teachers, certainly. No serious tech person can live in a bubble, but plenty of teachers do.
    I definitely think you need to keep asking questions about how curriculum is developed and shared. Today, I had my first AP Probability & Statistics class and I think this is one course which gets it right. It’s all about dealing with fuzzy inputs and real world applications (almost all of the textbook problems are pulled from case studies). Right off the bat, the first investigation is applying statistical analysis to an actual gender discrimination case. I think the ideal tool would let this kind of curriculum be shared, not only with other AP stats teachers, but with all math teachers.

  7. Your session at Foo Camp was one of the most significant and inspiring I’ve seen at Foo… and I’ve been to all of them. I only wish that we could have had a two-day camp *just on that*.

    You made an impact. The standard Foo “joke” is that it’s the only place where you can walk by any room and hear someone who looks 20 saying, “So that’s what I did LAST week to change the world…”, and it’ll actually be true. Tim showing up to your talk was pretty significant as well. His mantra these days (to us developers) is “work on stuff that matters.” Obviously he puts your work in that camp, and other people listen.

  8. When I started using SpringBoard last year it was a set of project based learning modules. This summer they came out with a text book that uses those projects and then designs a more complete curriculum around them. It’s more investigative learning and real world situations. You can check out some of the modules here.