Tools For Socialized Instruction Not Individualized Instruction

PearDeck is technology you should try out. Here’s how it works. Let’s say this image fascinates me:


It takes a certain amount of spatial skill to answer the question, “How high will the creamer be in the upside-down container? Will it be higher than the original? Lower? The same?” (I mean the volume is the same, after all.)

So I create a new PearDeck presentation and send the link out on Twitter asking just those questions. PearDeck then lets me capture the feedback of these students in realtime.


The teacher interface expands to let me know whose answers are close or not that close.


This sets me up for anything from an explanation of how to calculate solids of revolution in Calculus or a debate about covariation in Algebra.

If you’re an educational technologist and you think this is interesting, please notice that this is the opposite of individualized instruction. It’s socialized instruction. PearDeck would be much less interesting if you were the only person estimating, or if you were answering the question “Will it be higher or lower or the same?” alone.

Sometimes learning is less fun when you’re learning at your own pace.

(The answer.)

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. Interesting stuff. Debatable, though, is it not, whether they are all learning at the same pace, or still learning at their own pace even if all participating at the same time.

    Is this really any different than a classroom situation, say, a lab, where the teacher presents a scenario like the one above, and then challenges the students to estimate where the line is, and the teacher maybe even jots down on the blackboard each student’s estimate? The students all see the same info, they are influenced by the estimates of others, but their individual pace of learning still might be out of sync. In fact, it usually is.

    So those who don’t get the answer right in this scenario, did they learn? Did they see, after it was explained to them, why X is the right estimate and their answer is wrong? Or do they quietly deal with it, or ignore it, and the class moves on to something else?

    The pace of learning and whether it’s self or group is only one dimension of learning.

    A tool that combines the collaborative, competitive, participatory “socialized” side and with an “individualized” side to evaluate right on the spot each learner’s grasp of the right answer, might be the best approach.

  2. It sounds to me like you are talking about collaborative learning, which doesn’t negate a student learning at his/her own pace. Working at your own pace doesn’t equal working alone.

    Whether we like it or not, we ALL learn at our own pace. There’s nothing you or any other teacher can do to make me learn faster than I have the ability to comprehend. You can help my comprehension come faster or slower than it would if I was just reading a book. . . to a degree. But if I don’t have the experiential framework from which to make sense of what you are teaching, I’m not going to “get” it. You can’t control the fact that I need time to digest new information…to put the pieces together in my own mind.

  3. Nobody is learning anything from guestimating where the line would be, rather they learn through the discussion that follows.

    Some folks will already have a very good idea of where the level should be, some will have an correct intuitive sense, and some are just guessing.
    The discussion before and after the reveal will help individuals learn as they debate why their thinking is directed in a certain way. Sounding it out if you will. This then can become the hook for, how can I get this right every single time?

  4. They may be learning something while in the middle of the guestimating, but they’re probably learning skills that are similar to any competitive activity including games — seeing how others are estimating, taking that into consideration in terms of possibly modifying one’s own estimate — all useful skills. And for some, they may achieve the aha moment during the collaborative/competitive activity, or maybe they reach it afterwards during instructor-led discussion. The students are prolly learning at their own pace regardless of whether you try to accelerate or “socialize” the pace or not. One hopes they’ve all achieved the same list of aha goals by the end of each class. But unfortunately we know that’s not true. Creators of online/digital tools have long tried to help make it more the case.

  5. I think Brendan’s correct that the learning is more likely to happen when students justify their intuition than when they first apply that intuition. (Though I think he oversteps by saying that intuition teaches us nothing.)

    Brian and Shari offer some helpful feedback, but the point that the teacher doesn’t have any control over when the students learn something is a non-sequitor. That point applies equally to the teaching software and the teacher.

    My point is that most software for individualized instruction fails to connect learners together in the kinds of productive debates Brendan describes. And that’s by design. Individualization is the watchword. Don’t let yourself become burdened by your classmates! But in many cases your peers aren’t burdensome. They’re essential. And the software fails to distinguish one case from the other.

  6. I’m in the Pear Deck Beta group and used it last week while running a professional development session with our 6-8 math teachers. By the end of the session, my colleagues were enthralled. It’s a great tool and has a ton of potential as a platform for inquiry learning; a great way to collect students’ initial estimates, thoughts, or ideas BEFORE they attempt to resolve the perplexed state the teacher has put them in (Dan’s 3 Act Math format). In addition to dragging a horizontal line (as in Dan’s example) or a dot (as in the earlier version, Riley Lark’s ActivePrompt), questions can be open-ended (text or numeric), multiple choice, or freehand drawings. Slides can also be informational. The responses can be viewed in real-time, or only after every student has answered. Projected responses are anonymous, but the teacher dashboard is tracking responses by student all the while. And while presenting the deck, the teacher can seize a “teachable moment” by asking a question on the fly. The format that I think has great potential across disciplines is the quick “Agree or Disagree” question. The teacher asks a question in the moment, and students drag a dot anywhere along the continuum from agree to disagree. What a great way to begin a debate about ANYTHING at ANYTIME in a classroom. Sure, I could always ask for a show of hands, but then the followers will (as always) look around and decide which group to side with. Not so when your red dot looks like everyone else’s and only you know which one is yours. I can’t wait to use it next year.

  7. Ah! I had no clue your comment was specific to software. I have individualized instruction without being tied to software. Your comment now makes sense in comparison to “most software”.

  8. This does not offer a fair playing field to all students. The assumption that students have access through twitter feeds is HUGE. Where I live, a cell signal is not always available and many students do not have the tools necessary to access it. It does sound interesting, though.

  9. Another idea that @michaleylynch helps me think about is avoiding “student centered” and preferring Parker Palmer’s “content centered.” We have this big push for individualization and sometimes that means focusing on students at this hyper-omg-what-does-omar-need-right-now-at-this-very-second level.

    But the real spirit of learning is about the content or the subject. If we can put the content at the center of a “community of truth…” I think everything feels more interesting and engaging.

    I worry about kids on whom we’ve been focusing so relentlessly and specifically to make sure that everything is centered on them.