Month: January 2010

Total 10 Posts

Kate Nowak Joins The Dark Side Of EdTech Evangelism

Kate, tripping guilt with the best of them:

If you want to find excuses for why you can’t possibly teach class differently than you have for the past n years, you will find excuses. If you want to find solutions, you will find solutions.

If they got to Kate they can get to any of us. Double the watch. No one sleeps tonight.

PS. But seriously: where is the comparative study of “no excuses” rhetoric between the Rhee reformers and the edtech evangelists? If you close your eyes, they sound the same.

PPS. Do not close your eyes!

BetterLesson Looking Better

I have no idea when the BetterLesson team deployed this feature, but it’s great. Essential, even, for this kind of site and the implementation is exactly what I would expect:

One click and you have the lesson plan in PDF and all the supplementary files in a folder on your desktop:

However finely they’ve tuned their downloading, the upload procedure still encourages teachers to share content standards, worksheets, and pacing guides, which, unless I’m wrong, aren’t anything that will set a community of teachers ablaze. My persistent impression is that creative educators will feel constrained by BetterLesson.

On Getting The Concept Checklist Wrong These Last Six Years

May as well get this out of the way as long as I’m in this public state of contrition.

The concept checklist, in theory, is where students track their progress towards mastery. They write down concept names in rows as we test them and then record their scores (on a four-point scale) along that row, one after the other, each time they retake a concept quiz. I log only their highest scores in the gradebook and whenever they record two perfect scores on a concept, they never have to take that concept again.

The concept checklist is a mess. I run through the same script every year, illustrating the same process with better and more precise visuals every year to no avail. The process confuses students. The process puts students farther from meaningful self-assessment not closer. I saw another checklist crumpled in the trash last week and figured it out.

Their highest score matters much more to me than the specific ordering of low scores preceding it. So forget the earlier low scores. Students add length to the bar as they improve on earlier scores. This checklist design is consistent with our class ethic that “what you know now matters to us more than what you used to know,” whereas the other design maintains a permanent record of “what you used to know.”

So here’s an updated attachment.

BTW: Reader Jacob Morrill does me one (or two or three) better with his adaptation, which is superbly designed:

This Blog Is Counterproductive

Some comments on my last post:


I read stuff like this, and the first thought that goes through my mind is, “Man, I suck at teaching math.”


I’m with Steve. I realize how far I am from where I should be.


I’m with Steve and Craig- I can’t teach this way yet because my brain isn’t aware/smart/intuitive/mathematical enough to first notice these things, then develop a lesson, and actually deliver and make sense of it.


I’ll echo Steve’s comment, I read this site and I feel like a fraud. I don’t know anything about teaching math.

I don’t teach to disempower students and I don’t blog to disempower teachers.

My largest point with these WCYDWT features, way above any other, has been that compelling, interesting math is everywhere. That you can capture it, mount it, and bring it into your class in such a way that students will also find math interesting and compelling and, in the process, become a little less intimidated by their own imaginations.

But I really suck at teaching that to teachers. Both off comments like those quoted above and off a recent, gruesome experience teaching online, it’s clear that I’m missing some key piece(s) of scaffolding.

Course Prerequisites

I’m trying to determine the prerequisites for this kind of coursework and — correct me here — I’m pretty sure there are only two:

  1. You like math. You weren’t forced into this job.
  2. You use math. You’re high on your own product. This isn’t a game to you. Math has made your personal life richer, easier, or more meaningful in the last week.

From there it’s a simpler matter of teaching:

  1. process — how to flip an interesting thing around into a challenging thing, detailed somewhat in my last post.
  2. technique — how to (i) capture photos / video, (ii) copy and paste images from the web, (iii) rip DVDs, (iv) download TV shows, (v) layer measurements on top of photos/videos, and (vi) post all of the above online.

Once the process becomes intuitive and once any three of those skills become easy, I think you fall quickly into this virtuous cycle of seeing interesting things > teaching interesting things > seeing more interesting things. The coefficient of friction falls to zero. It’s like skating on ice.

Case In Point

Kate Nowak, on the bite-sized opener clip I ripped from Parks and Recreation and posted two weeks ago:

This is cute, and totally slipped by me even though I watch this show.

I see little daylight between me and Kate as educators, which makes her comment all the more illustrative of the skills I’m talking about, skills which I use often enough that my antenna is on auto-scan for these passing mathematical moments. If I had to guess, Kate has never (iv) used BitTorrent to download a digital copy of a TV show and excerpt a clip in QuickTime, which means there is a certain degree of interference between her antenna and those moments.

Does That Make Sense?

If I allow myself any charity here it’s to acknowledge that this process is as much lifestyle as it is technique, and blogging — or any kind of asynchronous forum where dialogue plays out slowly — may be the wrong forum for teaching it. The right forum has proven pretty well elusive, though.

How Do You Turn Something Interesting Into Something Challenging?

[Correction: an oil barrel contains 158,987.295 ml.]

Nat Torkington writes the Four Short Links column for O’Reilly’s Radar, highlighting interesting articles around the web on a daily (or near-daily) basis. Recently, he’s pitched me a few links via e-mail under the heading “WCYDWT?” which, due to my fallen nature, I have taken as a challenge to my sacred honor.

Here’s one: the relative price of different liquids which illustrates the disturbing fact that HP printer ink is several orders of magnitude more expensive than crude oil.

So I opened our first day back from winter break with a learning moment built around Nat’s link and then recorded video of the moment which you’ll find below. My apologies in advance for the pitiful production value. Initially, I was going to forward this only to Nat as some kind of retort but I found the experience so difficult, messy, and exhilarating, I had to debrief myself here. Notwithstanding the video quality, you’re welcome to pummel me for anything you see.

Classroom Video

Classroom Video — HP Ink Costs More Than Blood from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

Color Commentary

Synonymous with “What Can You Do With This?” is “How Do You Turn Something Interesting Into Something Challenging?” I have asked educators that question on this blog, in online classes, and in several conference presentations over several years. Here is — by far — the most common answer:

“I’d put it on the wall and we’d talk about it.”

Which is a weak start. A certain kind of student inevitably dominates these pseudo-Socratic discussions and then invites another kind of student to disengage. But Nat has dealt us a strong hand. If we play those cards right, we can retain and empower a lot of those (mathematically and conversationally) reticent students.

1. Calm down with the math for a moment. Invite their intuition.

At one point in my career, I would have led this off by giving them all the data and asking them to compute the ratio of cost to volume. but my blue students are poorly-served by that approach. So many of them have been burned so badly by math that if I open the conversation with terms like “ratio” and “volume,” pushing numbers and structure right at them, I’ll lose the students I want to keep. Moreover, this confuses master with slave. We use math to make sense of the world around us more often than the reverse.

So I put seven liquids on the wall and asked them to rank them from most expensive to least. Simple speculation. Nothing more mathematical than that. Please imagine, here, how much more fun it is to walk around and talk about the question, “Which do you think is the most expensive?” rather than the lead balloon “Which has the highest ratio of cost to volume?”

Ask a student to come up and share her ranking with the class. Argue a bit. Entertain opposing opinions. Ask a student if he’d trade a can of Red Bull for a can of his own blood. Student investment at this point is very nearly 100%. It’s mine to lose.

2. Slowly lower mathematical structure onto their intuition.

“Here’s the answer,” I told them, but students know at this point to triple-check me. Several went straight for Red Bull, which totes does not cost $51.15.

“So you’re saying that how much you get matters as much as how much it costs.”


We used cell phones to text Google and ask for unit conversion. This always strikes my students as magical and suspicious.

And here, finally, we talked about the ratio of the cost of blood to how much blood you get. I asked them to visualize one milliliter of blood. “What does .40 mean?” We talked about the cost of one milliliter and how it’s useful to compare that cost across liquids.

The rest (hopefully) writes itself, though, for the record, I kind of hate how explain-y I get in the last third of the video.

The Virtuous Cycle Specific To Our Line Of Work

  1. Find an interesting thingIt’s sad how often the conversation with other teachers ends here, after it becomes obvious that they just aren’t interested in all that much..
  2. Transform that interesting thing into a classroom challenge.
  3. Help your students develop tools to resolve that interesting challenge.
  4. [Optional] Blog about it.
  5. Repeat.

The feeds in your reader then spiral upwards and out of your control. WCYDWT ideas begin to pile up faster than you can capture them. It’ll freak you out and you’ll wish you could turn it off for just a few hours while you’re watching TV but you realize this a rare ancillary benefit in an occasionally tortuous job and you accept it gratefully.

[BTW: Mr. K rightly points out that this problem is of a piece with the nickel thieves from a few years back.]

[BTW: You should read Burt’s commentary on the lack of real-world meaning of these statistics.]

[BTW: Great list of liquids and prices here.]