Teaching WCYDWT: Learning

But where do you find this stuff?

some variation on this first quote has come up in every professional development session I have ever facilitated.

I just need to sit down and set some time aside to search for lesson ideas.

a colleague at Google while we were spitballing curriculum ideas.

The fact is that I don’t find ideas for curriculum. They find me. And I mean that as literally as possible. I don’t sit down and start searching Google for “fruit as a metaphor for the coordinate plane” or “Flash games illustrating angle reflections.”

I graduated college several years ago and, like many of my friends, I had to fill that learning vacuum with something. All of us came around to Google Reader within months of each other, which represented (for me) an evolutionary leap forward in managing my own learning.

If we really believe that mathematical reasoning undergirds Everything, then we need to keep learning about Everything, not just about the technical skills common to our own field. (I went at this same concept some time ago, though perhaps a bit inartfully.)

My suspicion, also, is that education will improve fastest when teachers recognize the incongruity between their own most exhilarating learning experiences and what goes on in their classrooms.

Question: what tools are essential to that kind of exhilarating learning? What is in your learning Swiss Army Knife?

Let me urge you to consider that question under the following fictional constraint: every time you tell a teacher to download a new application or set up an account with a new web application, the teacher loses a fingertip.

Bracket, for a moment, the grossness of the scenario. I’ll let you decide how the teacher loses the fingertip. The point is that y’all don’t understand that you’re a bunch of freaks. Someone links up some new online Photoshop knock-off and on muscle memory alone you’re entering in your e-mail address and a password and clonking away at your new toy.

Real people aren’t like that. And you give them too much grief, sometimes, for their unwillingness to sign up for ten different web apps to service ten different nuances in their learning which you have judged to be equally essential.

So: fingertips. Be careful here. I would give the fingertip off my right ring finger for Google Reader. I would sacrifice a second fingertip for Delicious.

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. You might have heard this before, but writers get the exact same type of comments ALL the time. “Where do you get your ideas?” “I have a great plot for a novel, if I could just find the time to sit down and write it.”

    What you’re addressing here is simply creativity. I’m sure you don’t need anyone to tell you that Ramanujan was just as creative as Van Gogh, perhaps even more so. Learning ought to spark the imagination, which is the process that occurs when our natural tendency to be creative is tapped, no matter what the subject.

    That’s why your water tank demonstration works: because it presents a situation and lets students’ curiosity lead them toward imaginative questions. In the end, a learning experience is successful if students get curious. Curiosity sparks imagination, which leads to creative thinking, not “teaching moments.” That’s what makes learning exciting.

  2. “My suspicion, also, is that education will improve fastest when teachers recognize the incongruity between their own most exhilarating learning experiences and what goes on in their classrooms.”

    Yes yes yes! At edcamp Philly this weekend, the idea I kept coming back to over and over again was that every time we find something that we love about our PD, we need to do our best to find ways to incorporate that into our schools as much as possible. And whenever we find something we hate about our PD, we need to find ways to eliminate that from our schools.

    If you hate sitting through bulleted powerpoint presentations, your kids probably will too. And if you loved having the opportunity to get some real choice in your learning and having dynamic conversations and being able to just play around with some new tool, then your kids also will too.

  3. Jonathan Brubaker

    May 26, 2010 - 6:28 pm -

    I totally agree with your assessment of Delicious and Google Reader. They are both the cornerstone of my use of tech and garnering new ideas. The fingertip metaphor is a good reminder that less is more. If I look at my Delicious page, I started using it in December of 2005. When I realized that each page or tag had its own RSS feed, things really took off.

  4. I love it when the ideas find me. The problem is that they never find me at the right time. I saw that episode of “How I Met Your Mother” when it first aired, and thought that the hot vs. crazy graph would be fun to use in class. I wasn’t teaching relations and functions or anything related to graphing at the time, though, so I just forgot about it.

    I guess the difference is that you would have pulled the clip and waited for an opportune time to use it. I’m going to start doing that.

  5. The fact is that I don’t find ideas for curriculum. They find me. And I mean that as literally as possible.

    The problem with this is that one often needs a lesson on (say) alternate interior angles and inspiration instead comes for (say) one on standard deviation.

    How’s that en masse brain website going?

  6. @Jason Dyer
    Yes, I’d definitely add some sort of social networking component in there. Somewhere, someone knows a dynamite way to teach matrices to 15 year olds, but I have yet to meet that person. WCYDWT Jason Buell would ultimately end up being a whole lot of Newtonian mechanics because that’s what I’m interested in and am always looking around for. Unfortunately for my classes, I also teach chem and astronomy.

  7. That’s it: Google Reader to bathe in the flow and Delicious to build my digital commonplace book, my outboard memory.

    Yeah, I like Tumblr a whole lot, and, lately, Twitter has been fun, but I can add feeds from both of those to Google Reader, so the only added value they present is that of communication and publishing. Heck, on two recent occasions, I’ve read that my Delicious account is blog-like, so maybe that counts as publishing.

    Two additional notes about Google Reader to further emphasize its place at the top of my list:

    1. The ability to star/like/share approaches some of the features of Delicious, I just can’t give up the tagging.

    2. Whenever I find a feed that I would like to follow, but feel like it doesn’t quite make the cut, I add it to a folder titled ‘zxtra’. I hardly ever look in that folder, mostly choosing to ‘mark all read’, but when I want to search for something interesting on a given topic, I skip Google and go straight to Google Reader which then serves as my personalized search engine of interestingness. Who needs Yahoo Pipes?

  8. I’m cringing at the thought of all the teachers’ fingertips I’ve chopped off over the last few years. Those of us who aren’t “real people” need to really keep that in mind. Although, Google Reader can be a hard sell on its own to teachers who think that Facebook is cutting edge, or even to contemplate that there are teachers out there who willingly share on the web. I have managed to get the majority of my staff using delicious, even if it just like Favorites on the web for most of ’em.

  9. Ha! Never looked at Delicious. Did just know, couldn’t make any sense of it. Don’t know what RSS is. And I’m a technologically SAVVY Elem. Ed teacher!

  10. Twitter for the conversation. I could not have made it without their encouragement, sharing resources, criticisms, different perspectives, feedback, tips, advice, jokes, and ideas. They are my virtual teacher’s lounge.

    Delicious for the countless times I found something at home and wanted to use it at school but alas, it is on my favorites at home. The tagging helps when I am looking for resources that I know I saved and plus, I just like organization!

  11. Scammell: I guess the difference is that you would have pulled the clip and waited for an opportune time to use it. I’m going to start doing that.

    I’m getting to “what you do with your learning” in my next installment but, suffice it to say, you have to do something with it to engage a certain flywheel effect where learning turns into more learning. Most cases for me, I just write some notes down in Google Docs about my ideal lesson and walk away. Maybe the lesson never happens but it’s essential for me to turn my learning into something.

    Jason:The problem with this is that one often needs a lesson on (say) alternate interior angles and inspiration instead comes for (say) one on standard deviation.

    In those situations, I am grateful for the inspiration for standard deviation, which I file and tag for another day, while then teaching alternate interior angles the best way I know how.

    Jason: How’s that en masse brain website going?

    Not well.

  12. I’m not really comfortable suggesting anyone should lose a digit over any web tool…? But yeah, GR and Delicious. Maybe youtube – but my yt favorites are like an auxiliary delicious.

    People get into their habits. Even if they know a tool exists that will meet a need they have, and really really easy, the psychic pain of the change, combined with their sense that it’s working good enough, is enough to stop them. 9/10 professional conversations I have are with people who want to set it and forget it, and in most cases already have.

  13. I’m an English teacher who has been lurking here for years, learning a ton about teaching English from a bunch of math teachers.

    Now I’m about to start a new gig at a community college, and I’m *determined* to find ways to use WCYDWT to teach writing/grammar/rhetoric/style. I’ve got some ideas, but I was hoping to tap the collective wisdom of this group for more: Any thoughts on how to do this stuff with words, not numbers? Any suggestions on other (English) teachers out there doing this already? Any good RSS feeds I should add to *my* Google Reader?

    Many thanks–

    “Advice is nice, but practice is nicer. What our students need is practical work with language, experience in manipulating and testing words.” –Scott Rice, “Right Words, Right Places”

  14. Tony,

    I’m trying to do the same for English and history. I’ve really had to rewire my thinking to make this kind of thing happen in English. The main seems to be coming up with problems that can be solved with words. Things like: you’re in this situation and need to have this speech ready in 10 minutes, what do you say? (yesterday I had them pretend to be a BP spokesperson, and they had to put together a press release for the top kill attempt… which quickly became a good lesson on colloquial/formal language and clarity.) Or, you’re the editor of a newspaper and this thing is going to the presses in 10 minutes (oh, geez, will people even know what that means in a few years?), fix the problems. Or I’ll give them something like one sentence that they need to make better (see Poynter’s great example: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?aid=154757&id=78). Then, from those things, we can arrive at some writing and grammar principles.

    I’m trying to pay attention to words and situations that are interesting. So, for RSS feeds… I read a lot of politics and news, BoingBoing, Clusterflock (they have this great “quote out of context” thing going that is fun to throw at students and see if they can write a paragraph with that sentence in it that makes it make sense. Many of them can be found here: http://www.clusterflock.org/category/quotes). Kottke and XKCD are essentials.

    I also like to throw some products up on the screen and have them create ad campaigns or ad copy for them. Then I like to show them what the professional campaigns look like for the same product. Sometimes they do better. It’s fantastic. Ads of the World helps for this.

    The main problem or difference between WCYDWT for English as compared to math is that it’s hard to know what they’ll do with these things you give to them. Sometimes it takes unexpected turns. I’m learning to go with the flow on these things.

    I’d love to hear more thoughts… and I have more to share. I don’t know if this thread is the place or not. I’m busy but also very interested in trying to get an English WCYDWT community up and running. If you’re interested or have any more ideas, I’m intrigued to see what we can do with this (bad joke?).

  15. I like your approach, Luke. Good Tumblr, too. I think you’re hitting a lot of the high notes, a lot of cool, timely practical assignments designed to draw out some basic skills (the persuasive essay, the contrast between formal and informal).

    I’ve given some thought lately to the compound adjective. Eight-Legged Freaks vs. Eight Legged Freaks.

    No doubt there are a million better examples, but I like the idea of setting up a moment where the students are forced to invent a rule that language-types came up with long ago. Because the common theme between math and language is that the rules make sense. The rules are around, in most every case, because they were the easiest way to make life simpler, clearer, faster, or more satisfying. All we have to do – both of us – is put students in a situation to discover that.

  16. Dan,

    I love the eight-legged freaks vs. eight legged freaks idea. That’s going to show up in next year’s stuff for sure. Maybe I’ll have them do five minute presentations on it… but I’m guessing they’d end up doing five-minute presentations. This could be really fun.

    The rules make sense.* Absolutely. Not comes the hard work of finding interesting problems, being less helpful, and getting them to build/discover and use the rules. This website has a bunch of common grammar problems. I might try to grab some time this summer to see if I can shape some patient problem solving around these. Or I could hope that simply posting that link here will cause magical and brilliant lesson plans to materialize in the comment thread below.

    * Or at least most of the time they do. I wish it was always true that English language things make total sense, but too often they don’t. Or at least they don’t immediately make sense. Or sometimes they only make sense through lots of weird explanations involving history and other languages and people with the last names of Merriam and Webster. (Like why paintings are hung but people are hanged, which raises the inevitable question: what word do you use if you hang a person on the wall like a painting… was he hung or was he hanged?) When I think of grammar, spelling or verb conjugation, honestly, some of it seems awfully arbitrary when compared to the logic and understated eloquence of mathematical principles (yep, English teacher, loving on math). I absolutely hate it when it finally comes to the point that I have to say something to a student like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” I want to be able to banish those words from my teacher speak. But hang it all, I don’t know if I can. This seems like an important WCYDWT/patient-problem-solving teacher mindset: never say “that’s just the way it is.” Maybe I’ll try this out, banishing those words, but, as with most good teaching, that would take a whole lot of work and attention. Most things make sense (like Tim Childers great example), but some don’t… and it seems like it’s quite often these weird particulars that we’re trying to teach over here on the English side of things. (Sorry that footnote became DFWesque.)

  17. @ Tony and Luke…

    I think I’ve been attempting the WCYDWT in English without naming it (or succeeding often, haha)…

    I teach 2nd grade and literacy is my passion (though I’m a math fan, too, Dan!)…one of my idols is Katie Wood Ray, a writing expert (for those of you hermits who haven’t heard of her) who constantly hammers at the importance of collecting “real world writing” as mentor texts for young writers. This means scouring the newspaper, frequented blogs, magazines, and not being afraid of presenting adult-level text to young authors (7 years old). It’s thrilling. I love it.

    I guess with that said, WCYDWT is more of a teaching “state of mind” that isn’t necessarily limited to a discipline. I teach all disciplines to my kids and have found that WCYDWT has seeped into every last one.

    One of my good friends sent me this picture from her recent vacation…we both got a kick out of it. It would be the impetus for a meaty discussion about grammar!


  18. Thanks for the wonderful comments, Luke, Laura, and Dan (or should that be “Luke, Laura and Dan”? Depends who–or whom?–you ask…) Already some great fodder to get me going this summer on that small item on my to-do list: “Revolutionize teaching.”

    Great footnote, Luke, on whether “the rules” make sense or not. You’re absolutely right that the real “rub” in so much English teaching is in trying to help students understand relatively arbitrary (or even ridiculous) rules while trying to steer clear of the “that’s just the way it is” response–which only reinforces their suspicion that English rules are something (a) they can never understand, (b) only English teachers really care about.

    Then there’s another complicating factor in teaching English (as opposed to, say, math) in ways that encourage students to draw on what they know to figure out what they need to know: If “what they know” has a lot to do with *spoken* language, which comes “naturally” to all of us, that won’t always help them figure out the rules of *written* English–all those rules about where to put commas and semi-colons (and even whether to hyphenate “eight-legged freaks”) that don’t seem to have a real corollary in *spoken* English…