Collective Effervescence Is the Cost of Personalized Learning

Cross-posted from the Desmos blog. I’m happy enough with this post to re-broadcast it here. The Desmos blog doesn’t have comments, also, which makes this a better forum for you to tell me if I’m wrong.


We’re proud to debut our free Classroom Conversation Toolset, which has been the labor of our last three months. You can pause your students’ work. You can anonymize your students’ names. You can restrict the pace of your students through the activity. We believe there are productive and counterproductive ways to use these tools, so let us explain why we built them.

First, the edtech community is extremely excited about personalized learning — students learning at their own pace, uninhibited by their teacher or classmates. Our Activity Builder shares some of that enthusiasm but not all. Until last week, students could click through an activity from the first screen to the last, inhibited by nothing and nobody.

But the cost of personalized learning is often a silent classroom. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll walk into a classroom and see students wearing headphones, plugged into computers, watching videos or clicking multiple choice questions with just enough interest to keep their eyes open. But even when the activities are more interesting and cognitively demanding than video-watching and multiple choice question-clicking, there is still an important cost. You lose collective effervescence.

Collective effervescence is a term that calls to mind the bubbles in fizzy liquid. It’s a term from Émile Durkheim used to describe a particular force that knits social groups together. Collective effervescence explains why you still attend church even though the sermons are online, why you still attend sporting events even though they’re broadcast in much higher quality with much more comfortable seats from your living room. Collective effervescence explains why we still go to movie theaters; laughing, crying, or screaming in a room full of people is more satisfying than laughing, crying, or screaming alone.

An illustrative anecdote. We were testing these features in classes last week. We watched a teacher — Lieva Whitbeck in San Francisco — elicit a manic cheer from a class of ninth-graders simply by revealing the graph of a line. She brought her class together and asked them to predict what they’d see when she turned on the graph. They buzzed for a moment together, predicted a line, and then she gave the crowd what they came for.

She brought them together. She brought back the kids who were a bit ahead and she brought forward the kids who were a bit behind. She de-personalized the learning so she could socialize it. Because arguments are best with other people. Because the negotiation of ideas is most effective when you’re negotiating with somebody. And because collective effervescence is impossible to experience alone.

So these tools could very easily have been called our Classroom Management Toolset. They are useful for managing a class, for pausing the work so you can issue a new prompt or so you can redirect your class. But we didn’t build them for those purposes. We built them to restore what we feel the personalized-learning moment has missed. We built them for conversation and collective effervescence.

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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. The new tools are fantastic! Be able to show the class as a whole how students are reasoning through a problem is such a valuable process for authentic student learning. We can look at what went wrong and right with their thinking, without embarrassing a student who answers wrong in front of the class.

    I love the pacing because I can build activities now that allow me to have a discussion with the class on the first couple of slides, and then I can let them go!

    My only issue is that I don’t have enough time in my life to create all the lessons using Desmos that I want!

  2. Danielle Chaput

    September 25, 2016 - 9:31 am -

    What great tools! How do I access them? I don’t see them in my dashboard. I’m still a Desmos newbie, maybe I’m missing something. Can’t wait to try it all out with my students this week!

    • Danielle Chaput

      September 26, 2016 - 4:21 am -

      Please disregard my previous comment. I found my problem, those tools are not available in Polygraph activities…makes sense. Thanks for the great resource, trying it out tomorrow!

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more. I did a Desmos activity where the students worked in pairs. I monitored their work on the dashboard and circulated among the groups, correcting the misconceptions that I noticed in their answers. I used the pause button a few times when the whole class was struggling. But the students were engrossed in what they were doing and I think some of my comments fell on deaf ears. I think the activity might have been more effective with teacher pacing. I missed the collective ah-ha moments and I think some of the students never really got the point. Thanks for providing both the tools and the rationale for using them.

  4. I am a newbie to Desmos this year (Thanks CAMT!) and used “Match My Parabola” last week. When I paused the class, there were audible groans of disappointment from the most surprising of students. They weren’t ready to stop trying to figure it out, and wanted to keep going and try to get to the challenge questions rather than go to their next class. I’ve used the pause/guided functions in two different classes, and they have been transformative.
    Desmos is my new favorite toy in math class!

  5. The pause button is a very useful management tool – thank you.

    More generally, Desmos is incredible for giving structured guidance, rather than wishy washy investigations. My students are really enjoying using it. Thank you for the great work!

  6. I’ve often thought about this in terms of guided notes in the classroom as well. So many math classrooms use guided notes to scaffold learning for students — they can be effective. Teachers, however, should also consider how guided notes (which are often made in a worksheet style) limit conversation in the classroom. Many students jump ahead because they are mastering the content more quickly than their peers — a worksheet has built-in differentiation since students are working at different speeds. As this post mentions, the real loss can be in classroom discussion. In my own classroom and in working with other teachers, I am always grappling with how to address the tension between routines/procedures around guided notes versus the ability to create this “collective effervescence” by keeping students in the same place. Thanks for a great post.