Total 12 Posts

## Math Has Prepared Me Poorly for This Pandemic

Here are two representations of the horror of this pandemic.

Second, the obituary page of a newspaper in the Italian city of Bergamo, first from February 9 and later from March 13.

Both of these are only representations of this pandemic. They point at its horror, but they aren’t the horror itself. They reveal and conceal different aspects of the horror.

For example, I can take the second derivative of the graph of deaths and notice that while the deaths are increasing every day, the rate of increase is decreasing. The situation is getting worse, but the getting worse-ness is slowing down.

I cannot take the second derivative of an obituary page.

But the graph anesthetizes me to the horror of this pandemic in a way that the obituaries do not. The graph takes individual people and turns them into groups of people and turns those groups of people and their suffering into columns on a screen or page.

Meanwhile, the obituaries put in the foreground the people, their suffering, and their bereaved.

Math has prepared me poorly for this pandemic–or at least a particular kind of math, the kind that sees mass death as an opportunity to work with graphs and derivatives.

For students, it has never been more necessary to move flexibly and quickly between concrete and abstract representations–to acquire the power of the graph without becoming anesthetized to the horror that’s represented much more poignantly by the obituaries.

For teachers, there has never been a more important time to look at points, graphs, tables, equations, and numbers, and to ask students, “What does this mean?” and particularly now, “Who is this?”

BTW

Two relevant quotes here.

• “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin.
• “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” Paul Brodeur, quoted in Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies.

2020 Apr 10

Another example. It’s one thing to see a graph of unemployment, and another to see the lines for the food bank.

2020 May 25

## We’re Only Getting Out of This Together

Desmos closed its San Francisco office on March 9, about a week before the surrounding county issued a “shelter-in-place” warning. When it became clear that our local school systems were going to close, we assembled a small team of people from across our company to figure out how we could support educators during a period of school closure that has no precedent in our lifetimes.

I ran webinars for teachers on Saturday and Sunday. (Check out the recording.) Approximately 600 people showed up and all of us were clearly looking for more than tips, tricks, or resources for distance teaching.

I told the attendees I figured that, because they were attending a webinar on the weekend, they were probably teachers who held their teaching to a very high standard. But now isn’t the time for high standards for teaching, I said. I referred to Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s fantastic essay, “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.

… your class is not the highest priority of their or your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

I also mentioned Barrett-Fox’s admonition not to pick up new tools right now:

Also: If you are getting sucked into the pedagogy of online learning or just now discovering that there are some pretty awesome tools out there to support student online, stop. Stop now. Ask yourself: Do I really care about this?

You and I are likely receiving the same emails from ed-tech companies, ones that cloak in generosity their excitement to expand their user base, offering services for free they’ll charge for later. In our webinar I explicitly released the group from any expectation that they would learn Desmos as a beginner right now. Now is likely not the time. (It’s probably also worth pointing out that we’ve committed to never charging later for anything we make free now.)

But I told the attendees I had two hopes for their teaching during this time. That they would:

1. Give students something interesting to think about. Hopefully mathematical, but maybe not. Hopefully towards grade-level objectives, but let’s be realistic about the stresses faced by students, teachers, and parents here. (Remembering also how many people cross more than one of those categories.)
2. Make connections. I encouraged the group to make connections from teacher to student, from student to student, and from student ideas to other interesting ideas.

As an example, Johanna Langill, a teacher in my hometown of Oakland, CA, assigned her students our Turtle Time Trials activity. Students completed it on their own time, and then she recorded a review of their work, celebrating their early ideas, connecting those ideas to each other, and connecting those ideas to other interesting ideas.

In the week since that webinar, my team has had hundreds of conversations across every digital medium except maybe TikTok. We set up an email address and a hotline where teachers can ask for support, ask questions, or just vent omnidirectionally about how awful their situation is right now.

Our Facebook community is geared full-time towards supporting teachers in school closure. We are running webinars and drop-in office hours every day. We’re delivering new features and new activities specifically supporting distance teaching. We’re collecting all of these efforts at learn.desmos.com/coronavirus.

We’re trying to help teachers adapt to distance teaching, yes, but that’s really a secondary goal. Mainly, we’re trying to sustain community. Everything we’ve built or offered during this last horrible week has been an effort at preserving community between teachers and students, teachers and each other, and if I’ll confess to any selfish motive here, it’s that we’re trying to sustain our own community as well.

I’m convinced that when teachers and students find the other side of this, it won’t be because edtech companies offered junk for free, it’ll be through community, through solidarity across all of our usual divisions and now across divisions of time and space as well.

Like the Spencer Foundation’s Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Megan Bang said in an open letter this weekend:

It may be that social distancing isn’t quite the right frame for what we need right now. We certainly need physical distancing. But we also need to imagine and act from places of social closeness and care.

Teachers are our community and right now we intend to stay as close to them as possible.

## But Artichokes Aren’t Pinecones: What Do You Do With Wrong Answers?

I have very small children which means my life is measured by little games and distractions stretched across the day. “What’s that called?” is one of those games. Point at a thing and ask for its name. Do that for another thing. Hey —Â it’s almost nap time!

So recently we pointed at an artichoke. “What’s that called?”

“Pinecone,” one of the kids says.

That’s a factually incorrect answer, which is the same as lots of student answers in math class. But when my kid calls a pinecone an artichoke, I have a very different emotional, physical, and pedagogical response than when a student says something factually incorrect in math class.

With my kid, I am fine with the error. Delighted, even. I am quick to point out all the ways that answer is correct. “Oh! I see why you’d say that. They both have the kind of leafy-looking things. They both have the same-ish shape.”

I find it easy to build connections from their answer to the correct answer. “But an artichoke is greener, larger, and softer. People often eat it and people don’t often eat pinecones.”

However, if I’m teaching a math lesson and a student answers a question about math incorrectly, my reflex is to become …

… evaluative … “What did I just hear? Is it right or wrong?”

… anxious … “Oh no it’s wrong. What do I do now?”

… corrective … “How do I fix this answer and this student?”

I find it much harder to celebrate and build from a student’s incorrect answer in math class than I do an incorrect answer from my kids about artichokes. The net result is that my kids feel valued in ways that the students don’t and my kids have a more productive learning experience than the students.

I can give lots of reasons for my different responses but I’m not sure any of them are any good.

• This is my kid so I feel warmer towards his early ideas than I do towards ideas from kids I see for only a small part of the day.
• This kid looks like me so I’m more inclined to think of him as smart and brilliant and wonderful than I am a student with a different race, ethnicity, or gender.
• The stakes are smaller. What’s the worst consequence of my kid referring to an artichoke as a pinecone? That he doesn’t get invited back to the Governor’s Ball? Who cares. This will work out. I’m not preparing him for an end-of-course exam in thistle-looking stuff.
• I know the content better. I can build conceptually from a pinecone to an artichoke much more easily than I can build from early math ideas to mature math ideas.

But I find that every aspect of my professional and personal life improves when I try to neutralize those excuses.

• I am a member of faith and educator communities that help me dissolve my conviction that my kid is more valuable or special than your kid, communities that help me dissolve my sense of separateness from you. We are not separate.
• I am trying to develop pedagogical tools that make use of differences between student answers to replace ones that try to reconcile or flatten them. Tools like “How are these answers the same and different?” or “For what question would this answer be correct?”
• I am trying to learn more math more deeply so I can make connections between a student’s early ideas and the later ones they might develop.

All teaching is identity work, regardless of whether we think about it in that way. We are constantly contributing to the identities that students construct for themselves …

Whether my kid calls an artichoke a pinecone or a student offers an early idea about multiplication, they’re offering something of themselves just as much as they’re offering a fact or a claim. My goal is to celebrate those early ideas and build from them so that students will learn better math, but also so they’ll learn better about themselves.

Several people mention that we have more time to enjoy our kids and their thinking than we do students in math class.

2020 Jun 13. Other examples of early ideas about language from around my home.

• “Getting tangled out” a/k/a “getting untangled.”
• “Yesterday” as a placeholder word for any time in the past.
• “Foots” and “Gooses” as the plural for “Feet” and “Geese”.
• Them: What do cows eat? Me: Hay, I think. Them: No, horses eat hay.
• 6 looks a lot like a lowercase “g”.
• “After” is any time in the future. Me [beleaguered]: “We’ll do that later, kids.” Kids [combative]: “AFTER!”
• “More taller” is coming up a lot.
• These kids think that as they get older, they’ll get bigger and I’ll get smaller and turn into a baby.

## Can We Model Generosity With Mathematics?

Which of these bushfire relief donors was the most generous? What’s your ranking? What information matters here? What would your students say?

Some teachers quickly identified a connection to ratios.

Meanwhile, Lee Melvin Peralta critiqued ratios as too limited to fully model generosity.

I tend to side with George Box here, who wrote:

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Anyone who thinks that proportional functions fully describe runners in a race, or that linear functions fully describe the height of a stack of cups, or that quadratic functions fully describe the height of objects under gravity, or that ratios fully describe generosity is, of course, kidding themselves.

But those models are all useful. Ratios are a useful way to think about generosity.

Emily Atkin originally stirred this question up for me in her fantastic climate change newsletter:

Chevron’s donation is paltry, however, given its earnings and relative contribution to the climate crisis. Not only is Chevron the second-largest historical emitter of all the 90 companies, it also earned about \$15 billion in 2018. So a \$1 million donation amounts to about .00667 of its yearly earnings. To the average American, that donation would amount to about \$3.96.

So Atkin is evaluating generosity as ratio of net worth/earnings to donation size. But then she also considers the donor’s contribution to climate change.

The model is complex and grows more complex!

One teacher wanted to add fame and notoriety to our model, something Chris Hemsworth donates that Mariam might not. (Maybe she’s a TikTok teen, though. We can only speculate.) I talked with someone who lives in Australia about this question, and she said Hemsworth is less generous than someone from another country donating the same amount because of his identity as an Australian citizen. Robyn V wondered how to evaluate time donations, and even the donation of one’s life.

So ratios aren’t a perfect model for generosity, but they do offer us an important insight that, under some circumstances, someone who donates \$75 is more generous than someone who donates one million dollars, which one teacher noted is a quantity that is really hard for students to fathom!

One teacher preparation program asked the question:

If the ambiguity of the original question strikes you as anything other than a feature, then please don’t risk the conversation.

If you go into the conversation presupposing a model for generosity rather than admitting to yourself in advance that all the models are broken, you’re likely to diminish students who suggest variables you had already excluded.

Okay, yes, um, ‘whether or not someone lives in Australia.’ Okay, that’s one idea, but can I get some other ideas, please? Perhaps ones more related to the math we’ve been studying?

All of these models are complex. All of them are certainly broken. And all of them offer you the opportunity to celebrate and build on your students’ curiosity and contextual knowledge, an experience that is all too rare for students in math class.

BTW:Â Shout out to Christelle Rocha for her observation that individual generosity is no way to solve the climate crisis.

## Desmos Is Also a Curriculum Company Now

If you knew me as a classroom teacher, you knew I was very, very cranky about the ways many math textbooks treated students and mathematics, how they failed to celebrate and build on student intuition about mathematical ideas, how their problems were posed in ways that hid their most interesting elements, how they were way too helpful.

So it’s been a joy to get to do something more active about that problem than write cranky blog posts, to get to team up with some fantastic teachers, designers, engineers, and funders all continuously interrogating their assumptions about education, design, technology, math, and society, all to create what I think is …

This is it.

Call off the search.

You found it.