Because documents are the building blocks of a good lesson, we’ve recently made them more prominent on the lesson page.
I’m dumbfounded by the premise. I read and re-read the post and I trip over the first ten words every time. BetterLesson asserts the superiority of worksheets like it’s a matter of fact and not up for debate. Even within that debate, I’m not sure I’d put worksheets inside the top ten sturdiest building blocks of a good lesson. Ahead of Wordle, maybe, but definitely behind a can of Play-Doh.
But that’s what’s most interesting to me watching BetterLesson and Edufy sort themselves out. A pedagogical decision hides behind every design decision. When they nudge the worksheets section to the top of the page, they are making an assertion about what they think teaching is. When they ask you to create a course and then a unit and then a lesson, they are making an assertion about the best organization of learning.
Nat Torkington said, “The secret sauce to social software is the invisible walls that steer people towards productive behaviour.” You get what you make easy.
So if worksheets aren’t the building blocks of a good lesson, what is? And, more to the point, is it possible to design a user experience online that promotes it, that makes good pedagogy the easiest, most natural thing to share on your site?
Tom HoffmanJanuary 25, 2011 - 4:50 pm -
This is why what seems like the most obvious idea on the internet has never actually worked very well at all.
Bud HuntJanuary 25, 2011 - 5:24 pm -
I’ve got to beg of Tom the answer – what’s the “most obvious idea on the Internet?”
And – I hope you’re spending time in your studies, Dan, trying to answer the question that ends this post. It’s important – how do we help people to 1. Work from good theoretical foundations and 2. Do so when it’s not necessarily the “easiest” thing to do. Can social software make that easier? I don’t know – but it’s worth spending time thinking on and fiddling with.
Jon BeckerJanuary 25, 2011 - 5:30 pm -
Whoa, whoa, whoa…what do you have against Play Doh?
Peter PriceJanuary 25, 2011 - 7:17 pm -
It *is* difficult to organize a system for planning a curriculum. Do you put units ahead of individual lessons? Do objectives/outcomes belong at the top? I think I fundamentally think with “Greek glasses” on, and want definitions up front, then gradually work towards particulars.
Dan, I couldn’t agree more about worksheets and other “documents”. Like you, I am completely amazed at the statement that they are essential lesson building blocks. Adjuncts, followup resources, maybe. Building blocks? Never!
So, what does belong first in a good lesson? How about “engagement in thinking” – by teacher and students?
Dan MeyerJanuary 25, 2011 - 7:57 pm -
Everyone’s trying to be Microsoft right now, trying to make something agnostic enough to sell to every charter network in the US. Problem is, one, that agnosticism is making it hard for quality material to announce itself. And, two, where the platform isn’t agnostic (eg. on worksheets being the pillar of student learning) it’s making some lousy calls.
Someone’s gotta go all Steve Jobs here and say, fine, they can have the market share, we’re going to grab the high end of the market and make something that will be actively hostile to lousy pedagogy.
That’s basically the inspiration for a CS minor. It seems difficult to talk to teachers about theory without giving them some sort of practical basis for applying it. I figure maybe we start with the practical basis, with a website that’s easy to use, that’s fun to use, and which awards status based on the user’s ability to apply that theory. Then maybe … maybe … we get explicit about the theory.
Whoa whoa, I’ve been totally misinterpreted here. I’m putting Play-Doh ahead of Wordle and worksheets. It may even be my #1 for all I’ve thought about it. Problem is, Play-Doh doesn’t transfer well over the Internet. Big mess. I’ve tried.
I don’t think there will ever be a consensus about the best basis for a lesson. I don’t know if there should be. I’m more interested in the question, “if ‘engagement in thinking’ is the best basis for a lesson, how do you make it easy for teachers to share those materials online? How do you make it difficult for teachers to share other, lesser materials?”
KarimJanuary 25, 2011 - 8:40 pm -
I respect your relatively hands-off approach to math instruction. I also respect what the folks at BetterLesson are trying to do, and suspect your visceral reaction against scaffolded resources such as handouts requires a bit more evaluation.
First, it’s worth clarifying that BetterLesson does not actually develop content, but provides a mechanism–and, I think, a very good one–to help teachers share materials. If these take the form of worksheets, or PowerPoint presentations, or even a text file with suggested prompts, BL is agnostic. Indeed, the word “worksheet” does not appear in the first ten words of their post, nor in the second ten.
That said, and as someone who legitimately admires your own contributions to math education, I think that an anti-curriculum curriculum approach is just as limited as the most scripted textbook, just in the opposite direction. WCYDWT-style problems are great. Yet at least from what I’ve seen, they’re also limited to what are effectively brain-teasers: How long will it take to fill the tank with water?; How many people attended Burning Man?
Which leads to the larger question: what are we here to do? If our goal is simply to help kids solve puzzles, and if we agree that this would constitute an entire curriculum, then sure, let’s get rid of all the scaffolding: worksheets, handouts, etc. (Indeed, maybe we should get rid of the puzzles altogether, since the real fun is in the asking of the question).
On the other hand, if our goal is to use math to teach something else–to use a hammer to actually build something–then structure can help. We recently began collaborating with a major TV broadcaster to develop math lessons around their news programming. The first lesson explores the math of product warranties, and then uses this framework to better understand health insurance and healthcare reform.
How would you teach this (or rather, how would you create something for someone else to teach)? As I understand it, a WCYDWT approach would ask, “How is AppleCare like health insurance,” and leave it to students to come up with expected value and adverse selection. And if they do, perfect. But what if they don’t?
Herein, I think, lies the difference between posing questions (pure) and developing curriculum. Yes, the handout and PowerPoint and teacher guide collectively rob some of the authenticity from the experience, but they add something as well. Purity vs. compromise. Punditry vs. governance.
Scaffolding vs. exploration? Handouts vs. “go.” I’m not saying that one is right, nor am I saying that one is wrong. What I am saying, though, is that structure can play a role and, if not suffocating, a helpful one. Worksheets aren’t your thing? I respect that. You prefer Play-Doh? That’s cool. But as rigid as it may be, I’d still rather build a house with wood.
BetterLesson isn’t espousing a philosophy. They’re providing a tool. They’re not “espousing the superiority of worksheets,” but simply the virtues of sharing.
Joshua FisherJanuary 25, 2011 - 9:02 pm -
Why does “document” get translated to the much more negative-baggage-carrying “worksheet” in this post?
Dan MeyerJanuary 25, 2011 - 9:50 pm -
I think it’s a good tool also but the idea that a tool is value-neutral doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
If, for example, I provide a tool that disallows users from uploading any file that isn’t a image, am I not also espousing a philosophy about teaching? What if I provide a tool that allows users to upload any file they want to, but which puts those files in smaller print and far below, say, a pacing guide? Does that not also espouse a philosophy? It’s worth our while, then, to ask, “what values does this tool promote?”
You aren’t giving me a lot to go on here but, off the cuff, “How is AppleCare like health insurance?” isn’t a prompt I’d touch with gloves on. Pick any five WCYDWT prompts from the bag and ask yourself, “How are each of these different from ‘how is AppleCare like health insurance?'”?
I don’t know if you’re being intentionally simplistic here but your assessment of my approach makes me wonder if I’ve been explicit enough about it.
Quick comment re worksheets and scaffolding: I don’t have problems with either per se but when the scaffolding a) distorts how a real person would go through the problem solving process of deciding whether to buy AppleCare or not (in this case), or b) makes the mathematical task simpler and less challenging, then I have a problem. It’s the rare worksheet that can avoid both of those infractions. (Maybe we don’t agree they’re infractions, though.)
MBPJanuary 25, 2011 - 9:51 pm -
I’m a newbie, and I’m reflecting on the online resources that not only helped me prepare a lesson, but taught me something about how to help students learn. What I keep on coming back to is that I’ve learned the most from blog posts that take a topic that’s hard to teach, explain why it’s hard, and then explain what they’ve done to address the difficulties.
There’s a lot of reasons why Better Lesson is unusable, at this point. It’s immensely difficult to separate the good stuff from the fluff, for one. Too much of the stuff that I’ve seen on there is school-required lesson plans, which are far from helpful. But the main reason that I don’t stop there is that blogs are just so much better.
One of the things that’s going to help me get better is coming in contact, not just with good lessons, but the thought behind good lessons. That’s why blogs have been so helpful to me. The problem with ze blogs, though, is that things tend to be sprawling and decentralized.
What I want is a user-submitted virtual filing cabinet, with an editor-in-chief and with voting/comments.
Amanda WilsonJanuary 25, 2011 - 10:22 pm -
MBP said: “What I want is a user-submitted virtual filing cabinet, with an editor-in-chief and with voting/comments.”
I think you mean you need a delicious account :)
cooke.teachingJanuary 25, 2011 - 11:46 pm -
When we were kids, what if someone said to us:
“When you’re grown up, I hope that you are so skilled at doing things you love, people will pay you to do it. Let me help you find experiences that develop your skills to make that happen.”
I’d love to say THAT to my students, but I would drown trying to manage it. Every kid has different skills, different loves, different background.
Dan “I don’t think there will ever be a consensus about the best basis for a lesson. I don’t know if there should be.”
I agree. A comment to another post here said basically “a teacher asking for a ‘start to finish’ lesson… is a teacher who isn’t a patient problem solver.”
Dan said a sharing tool “hostile to lousy pedagogy” might be necessary for it to truly become great. But – is lousy teaching just the wrong experiences at the wrong time? Can a worksheet that guides exploration of a concept, be a valuable investment for some students on some occasions?
MBP “What I want is a user-submitted virtual filing cabinet, with an editor-in-chief and with voting/comments.”
I love it. A teacher who can pull out 8 varied activities from that file cabinet, can mix and match based on student needs without starting from scratch. This is still “patient problem solving”, with some ideas to build from and use as scaffolding, right?
I don’t like the editor-in-chief though. What if they screen out activities that could be good for a small population? Do voting/comments tell us what’s popular, while still allowing a ‘deep search’ for cutting edge or seemingly obscure ideas?
Karim @ MathaliciousJanuary 26, 2011 - 5:00 am -
“Quick comment re worksheets and scaffolding: I don’t have problems with either per se but when the scaffolding a) distorts how a real person would go through the problem..”
Well put. Again, though, developing content for other people requires compromise. Some teachers feel insucure in their own content knowledge. Others simply feel rushed. If scaffolding is what convinces them to teach a given lesson, then the other part of the compromise is ensuring that it still fosters the actual learning.
In terms of the apparent radioactivity of the healthcare prompt, this highlights two very different approaches to math ed or, better, its purpose. Is the real world a tool to learn about math, or is math a tool to learn about the real world? Both valid, and the emphasis informs how you view things like worksheets, etc.
Lastly, @MBP, I really like what you wrote about the need for more instructional guidance, and think that good materials invite those misconceptions and actively address them. Where that’s cumbersome, good teacher guides–not answer keys, mind you, but behind the scenes whisperings–are great.
GailJanuary 26, 2011 - 7:38 am -
“What I want is a user-submitted virtual filing cabinet, with an editor-in-chief and with voting/comments.”
I suppose what is needed is a slightly modified version of Stack Overflow , a question-and-answer site for programming issues. There are also Stack Exchanges for other topics, but I’m not sure if the question/answer is quite right for this purpose. But the way this community is set up (voting, reputation, etc) seems to work surprisingly well.
Tom HoffmanJanuary 26, 2011 - 7:56 am -
Actually, yesterday morning I was thinking that we need is this:
Except substitute, say, “WCYDWT” and “The Imaginary Open Source Math Curriculum” for “Python” and “Gnome,” educational companies for computer ones, etc.
Yes, I know this won’t make any sense to most people, but that’s what comments are for!
Jason DyerJanuary 26, 2011 - 9:28 am -
As someone who has used actual Play-Doh in a lesson, I should add the warning that one has to be _very_ careful when it is in the proximity of 12 year olds, unless you are keen on spending an hour cleaning.
I repeated the same lesson a year later but was careful to give a lengthy speech to each and every student I handed it to about proper use.
Dan MeyerJanuary 26, 2011 - 12:56 pm -
I’m reacting less to some overarching approach to math ed and more to the difficulty of using one abstract concept (AppleCare) to explain another (health care) when most students will have minimal experience with either. Personally, I don’t know a good way around that.
Chris RiesbeckJanuary 26, 2011 - 3:02 pm -
Assuming building blocks means “things to put in a repository for educators to find and use,” I think building blocks have two parts.
One part is the hook or attention grabber. The thing you put in front of students and stand back. I’ve got two in mind: “the puzzle up close” and “the treasure far away.” WCYDWT tend to be the former, video games tend to offer the latter, most school lessons have neither.
The other part is the toolbox containing, but not limited to, the items you need to solve the puzzle or get the treasure. A good toolbox has reusable items, nothing built just for this problem. It’s fine if some tools lead you to ask WCYDWT? It’s fine too if some are the wrong tool for the job.
What’s not fine are detailed instructions and artificial deliverables.
JeremyJanuary 26, 2011 - 8:18 pm -
Maybe I’m just late to the game here, but the post and comments brings me back to some of my own thoughts a few days back.
What is a worksheet? And inside that question, I ask the question what is it that makes them so bad?
I hear the term and I have a knee-jerk reaction. If I hear my students say “worksheet” or “packet” I have to fight the urge to tell them to be quiet so no one thinks I’m just having my students do endless repetitive problems.
Is it the photocopied paper that is bad?
Is it mindless rule memorization?
Or, the students going into a “survival mode” with the only goal to finish and if they learn something that’s just a bonus?
Is a photocopied “packet” that asks leading question to guide them towards a pattern or asks them to draw a conclusion based on an exploration still bad? Does that still fall into the same category as the dreaded “worksheet?”
Again maybe I’m late to the discussion, and this has been answered, but I wonder if we all have a different vision of what a “worksheet” looks like…
LauraJanuary 26, 2011 - 10:07 pm -
MBP said: “One of the things that’s going to help me get better is coming in contact, not just with good lessons, but the thought behind good lessons.”
I couldn’t have said anything better myself…your entire comment was right in line with what I was thinking. Maybe it’s because I’m a 2nd grade teacher, and my content is less rigorous, but I’ve been feeling my way through teaching for nearly 3 years now and rarely have I delved into a curriculum guide for guidance. I turn to my teammates constantly and we share experiences. I still email back and forth with my mentor teacher from grad school, and my literacy professor. I share successful lessons with them by telling what happened, what worked, what didn’t, my reasoning behind what I did. I’ve gathered around me a cluster of professionals whom I trust implicitly. The lesson autopsy conversations we have are enlightening.
That’s why I like blogs, too, because they resemble those real-world talks behind the scenes. I’m also a member of Scholastic’s communispace forum, which is by invitation… so the people on there have developed enough rapport to share ideas that have context. I love your blog, Dan, because you do make so much of your process explicit. I have learned so much about the way I look at the world as a teacher/learner and how I look at my kids, too. I’m catching on, thanks to your tutelage (you remind me a lot of the literacy prof I still chat with…).
Tired words, but relevant: If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. If you hand out lesson plans with step-by-step procedures and forms, you can help a teacher squeak by for that lesson/unit. But if you invite the teacher into a conversation where pedagogy and “how to” and “this is what happened when I tried this…” are are rolled into the dialogue, it’s definitely a better teacher made.
So regardless of how “messy” forums and blogs can be, I’d take that over a lesson bank any day. If I need to look for a specific lesson idea, couldn’t I just ask these people anyway?
Curtis AuteryJanuary 27, 2011 - 10:12 am -
“A pedagogical decision hides behind every design decision. ”
I think this just became my favorite quote.
Eric WestJanuary 27, 2011 - 10:16 am -
I’m interested to see how Edmodo evolves to foster teacher-to-teacher sharing of educational content. With its Facebook-like interface, it’s fairly easy to share links and files with colleagues.
Edmodo seems to avoid the two errors mentioned in Dan’s BetterLesson review:
1) Edmodo is fun, BetterLesson is not.
2) BetterLesson ties form tightly to content, Edmodo does not.
Not to sound like a shill for Edmodo, but I like what they’re doing. It could become a Delicious for educators…and it would be greatly welcomed!
Joshua FisherJanuary 28, 2011 - 7:25 pm -
“I hear the term and I have a knee-jerk reaction. If I hear my students say “worksheet” or “packet” I have to fight the urge to tell them to be quiet so no one thinks I’m just having my students do endless repetitive problems.”
Indeed. No one–except for Dan, at first–said “worksheet.”
Be honest. Please.
TomJanuary 29, 2011 - 7:44 am -
What makes good teaching and what’s easily shared and communicated on a website are quite different.
I think websites are often useful for providing teachers with time-savers. How many times have I created a worksheet on some topic that thousands of others have already written (be it in textbooks or not)?
My guess is that the BL noticed that users were focused on finding documents, and that’s why they foregrounded them.
I would also point out that your blog does very much the same thing — foregrounding a piece of material (video/photo) and then providing some questions. And the thing is that’s the one thing in a lesson that is transferable between environments (doesn’t depend on class-time or other school-dependent factors) and where the improvements by using someone else’s materials might be the biggest (if you’ve taken the time to meticulously edit something, it’s probably better than what I’m going to do the night before I’m teaching something when I try to google around for some helpful materials, which is what I’m guessing most lesson sites, even ones with a more grandiose vision, are really for).
Maria DroujkovaJanuary 30, 2011 - 6:42 am -
Blocks of a good lesson:
– A “maker” platform supporting something students will be making; play-dough or paper are good platforms
– A “sharing” platform, turning made objects into social objects
– A “discussion” platform for reflection
– Invitation to go back to making/remixing after reflection
Well yeah, some of the social objects can be documents. At the last math club, I invited kids to draw infinity, and their drawings can be thought of as documents. The format is beside the point, though.
Jerrid KruseJanuary 31, 2011 - 8:24 pm -
1) Your note that tools are not “value-neutral” is spot on!
2) I don’t know that we can design an interface (or anything) that makes good teaching the easiest option – because good teaching is not easy. The nature of design and human nature will keep us seeking efficiency. We, as teachers, must seek the depth of learning that efficiency undermines.
3) Someone mentioned making decisions from strong theoretical foundations. I think this is where teacher ed needs to be changed. To much of teacher ed looks just like bad k-12 instruction (hoop jumping, lecture, etc). We need better models in teacher ed, we need focus on underlying philosophies and enactment of those philosophies rather than a set of skills or strategies. If we focus on skills and strategies, the skills and strategies will be implemented based on the philosophies and teacher beliefs we are currently ignoring in teacher ed.
Scott MessingerFebruary 10, 2011 - 4:37 pm -
First, is betterlesson’s form really a problem?
Structurally, I don’t see much difference between a betterlesson lesson and your own curriculum. (http://geometry.mrmeyer.com/)
They call them “lessons,” you call them “weeks.” They have a place for documents. You have a place for documents. If a user created a lesson on betterlesson’s but put powerpoints instead of worksheets, couldn’t they recreate your own curriculum website?
Second, I’m not sure I agree with your statement about Steve Jobs:
“we’re going to grab the high end of the market and make something that will be actively hostile to lousy pedagogy.”
Take Keynote. Did he really prevent people from making bad presentations or did he simply guide people to making decent presentations? I’d argue you can still make bad presentations on keynote just as you can make bad pedagogy on betterlesson. In fact, in any of Apple’s products, have they succeeded in preventing people from making bad design choices? Take the iPhone. They have a review process to weed out bad apps. Their tools don’t prevent the inevitable garbage from being created.
Third, on the idea of creating and sharing lessons…. in my mind, it’s critical to address creating before sharing. A product must satisfy a teachers own self-interest by being super easy, FAST, and providing an easy way to organize activities/lessons. If a teacher uses a product to create, its trivial to invite them to click the ‘make public’ button and share.
IMO, BetterLesson doesn’t add value to the creation process and this is the reason we don’t see large usage numbers from them (http://siteanalytics.compete.com/betterlesson.org/ Even if compete is off by a factor of 10, its still drawing < 2% of the national teaching corp). If a product does add value to the creation process, it forces the sharing process to be non-value added. Uploading lessons to BetterLesson isn't a value added activity. Sharing lessons with colleagues isn't very value added either, as it's easier to use dropbox.
Any system that isn't a natural, value added part of the teaching planning process will see relatively little use and traction. Ideas like stackoverflow, edufy, teachers posting lessons to blogs, etc are great but they limit their audience to teachers who have the time and desire to do the non-value added activity of uploading content.
So, starting from the premise that we must solve the creation problem before we can address the sharing one, what is the creation process and how can technology help make it better? Specifically, how do teachers record "engagement thinking?" and how could a product make that recording better?
I like the work that asana.com is doing with task management. They're focusing on making individual user task management better. Check out their video demo–it's excellent. They point out the tension between simplicity and structure. Post it notes are simple. Project management software is complex and structured. They note that people never give up the simple (post it notes, notepad.exe, strings on fingers, wikis, etc) and thus duplicate what's on the structured system. A great deal of time is spent updating the simple systems to align with the structured. Asana has reject the dichotomy between simple and structured and created a rather impressive product that is both simple and structured.
I think a similar product needs to happen in lesson planning. Most lesson planning web apps are on the structured side. Teachers seem to prefer simple and use Microsoft Word to do most of their planning. A web app has to reject the false dichotomy and create a simple tool that also created structured data.
Finally, in full disclosure, I'm also working to "make something agnostic enough to sell to every charter network in the US." I'm curious what you think of it. We built our product around a menu based approach to curriculum design. For every concept, we've believe there's an array of activities that can be used to teach it. Sadly, this approach doesn't prevent lousy pedagogy, but we think it makes it possible for excellent pedagogy to flourish. Also, we're different from BetterLesson in that we're not focused on teachers; we're focused on helping the curriculum writers (either full time central office staff or teachers doing it after hours) distribute their curriculum to teachers. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, especially because I think you'd be remarkably critical. Let me know if you'd like to see a demo.
Dan MeyerFebruary 11, 2011 - 9:16 am -
I don’t want to quibble too much here but there’s some kind of world of difference between my two lesson depots and a platform that seeks to facilitate teacher lesson sharing on a broader scale. I can’t really describe the haste with which I tossed those materials online or my surprise that anyone finds them useful at all.
Clarifying my reference somewhat, my point wasn’t that Steve Jobs has made it impossible to create junk on his machines. It has more to do with Apple’s approach to the market, which is represented by this Jobs quote on an Apple netbook:
If BetterLesson has made a point, internally, of saying, “There are some teachers who make junk and our DNA will not let us ship it,” I’d be surprised.
This fascinates me. I figured the value transaction was one-sided on these lesson sharing platforms. I’d be curious to see how you’ve made it more symmetrical.
Scott MessingerFebruary 11, 2011 - 9:38 am -
Thanks for your comments You wrote:
> If BetterLesson has made a point, internally, of saying, “There are some teachers who make junk and our DNA will not let us ship it,” I’d be surprised.
I’m fascinated by the question we seem to be talking about, “Can we prevent junk?” Whether one looks at stackoverflow, message boards, or even dribble, there’s always junk. Dribble, a site to share screen shots of designs, perhaps does the best job of any site out there. They prevent junk by making it referral only, thus preventing the masses from signing up. However, making a site exclusive and referral only isn’t a technical decision–it’s a business one. So, could BetterLesson design a system which used technology or UI to prevent junk? I’m not sure.
To truly prevent junk, I think you’d have to have an approval process, which is a business decision, not a technical one. Naturally, there are implications of an approval process. An approval process presents a barrier which could limit uploading and creates possibly contentious situations where one users materials were not approved and one was.
I bring this all up because I think asking, “Can we prevent junk”, while fascinating, isn’t a helpful question to ask. I think it’s a more profitable discussion to figure out how to bring the brillance to the surface and hide the chaff.
MBPFebruary 21, 2011 - 9:45 am -
I think someone should set up “Math Education Overflow.”
MBPFebruary 21, 2011 - 9:55 am -
As in, I’m on Area 51 right now working on it. Anyone interested in the link when I’ve done it?