What I’m (Probably) Teaching Next Year

I got my (tentative) teaching assignment for next year:

  • 9th Grade Geometry (2 periods)
  • 8th Grade Algebra
  • 3rd Grade Math
  • 4th Grade Math

Which is more-or-less what I taught this year. This past year was a pretty happy year for teaching, and I’m not yet at the part of the summer where I think about what I want to do differently. (In short: I need to step up my 8th Grade game, get more organized about 3rd and 4th.) There’s time for all of this later.

Besides, I start teaching at math camp in a week, and I’m hard at work at my summer project. And — have you heard? — we’ve got a conference we’re planning!

That’s what I’m up to this summer and next year. What’s going on with you?


But What Can You Do About It?

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

From Knuth. Between twitter and email, being part of an online community (or at least the way I’ve been doing it) can end up feeling rather exhausting.

What Exactly Do You Want, Michael?

Chris (whose writing I love) has an idea:

I’m about to make a suggestion that’s wrong in specific and important ways, but probably right in general. We need GitHub for math curriculum.

GitHub is a tool for software developers. I could be wrong (I am probably wrong) but it’s not a tool that is primarily used for collaboration in a non-online sense. My impression (I am probably wrong) is that GitHub is essentially a more open distribution channel. You can copy the code and make your own version, which is forever associated with the original. This makes new versions a lot like suggestions, and the original might fold your changes into their versions.

I guess this is a sort of collaboration, but my point is that it’s not “hey Chris we’re writing this bit of code together so let’s go to GitHub and work this out” collaboration. It’s more like Wikipedia, sort of, where anonymous people in the crowd are making their small contributions to the effort.

Chris calls this as collaboration, fine I admit it he’s right:

Most crucially (so I’ll break it out of the bulleted list), collaboration is built into the DNA. I said “you” a lot in that list, but only because English lacks a distinct plural second-person pronoun. “You” could be your algebra team, or your math department, or your district curriculum folks, or…you. The whole point of community curriculum repositories would be for a group of education professionals using their collective expertise to take ownership of curriculum in a sustainable way.

I am totally agnostic about whether this is or isn’t helpful. Actually, I bet this would be very helpful to some people. But something happened when I was reading this, and maybe this sometimes happens to you. My first time through, I was nodding vigorously because I just assumed that Chris was describing the exact thing that I want and need. And because Chris is his own human person he was not. I only realized this later.

So, here is the thing that I want and need. (I think I want it. Be careful what you wish for is the law for new tools.)

I want a very simple web page that quickly captures a plan for a sequence of lessons. This might be a unit, or it just might be 5 lessons or whatever. I want a link that I can just share that would say “Developing Understanding of Fraction Addition” and have quick descriptions/images/links to the four activities I’m planning on using next week.

I want a thing that quickly makes these very simple web pages.

I want this because I don’t know a good way to share my units or unit planning on twitter or my blog. I want an object that I can refer to during discussion and collaborative planning. (The same way collaborative planning sometimes happens under the #CthenC hashtag on twitter. An example.)

And then I want to be able to make my own copies of other people’s units and modify them for my own personal record keeping and eventual sharing.

This is not a technological request that would massively change the world or solve any of the problems that Chris is describing. It’s just a modest need that I regularly feel in my online math teaching life. Maybe it’s insanely tricky to design this thing, maybe everybody else in the world is perfectly happy with Google Docs, or maybe nobody particularly wants to share and talk about other people’s units. I don’t know. But this is something that I think I want.

Response: Why Don’t Teachers Engage With Research?

Gary Davies wrote a piece titled “Why Don’t Teachers Engage With Research?” I read it, and I found it interesting, though I disagreed with much of it.

Joe asked me to say more. Here’s the more, Joe.

There is a lot that Gary says in this piece that I agree with. He notes that research in education is not written by or for teachers. That is true and important. Can you imagine a world where classroom teachers collaborated with researchers on joint publications? Forgetting for a moment everything else that would have to change (including the sort of research being done) that would just be a great thing for the profession(s).

I also agree with Gary’s call for open access to studies. This seems like something that just has to change.

Gary is a physicist who is moving towards the classroom. I think this is fantastic. My understanding is that he’s not in a k-12 classroom yet. Gary’s premise is that his expertise on physics research gives him perspective on educational research. I would suggest, though, that in some ways this might lead him astray in this piece. Gary points out convincingly that research in education does not resemble research in physics. He concludes that this is a problem, that education should be more like physics.

I think there are good reasons for why research in education doesn’t look like research in physics. Consider Gary’s first point:

Go and look at any field that is heavily evidence based and relies on research and you will find something striking: the people who do the research are the people who use the research.

Now, I just don’t think this is true. If it were true, though, I don’t see why we would saddle teachers with the responsibility to perform research. There is a striking difference between teaching and physicisting: teaching requires a great deal of relational expertise. You need to know how to navigate these kids in this school with this material. It’s surprisingly difficult to share this knowledge. In physicisting, the work is already abstract and ready to be shared.

A more apt analogy would be if we imagined that physicists were expected not just to publish research on physics but to publish on the act of having a successful science career. What if we wanted every physicist to be doing excellent science? What are the practices that lead to successful science? What sort of graduate education eventually yields the best scientific work?

These are questions that are more like what we deal with in education. Being good at grappling with these questions is quite different from doing good science in your area of expertise!

As Gary goes on, he doubles down on the idea that research on teaching ought to resemble research on physics.

What’s the average length of a research paper in education? I don’t know the answer but I have read many that are 30 pages or more. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one with fewer than 5 pages. In physics, we typically publish papers 4-10 pages long.

But why should we expect papers to be short? “A paper is an announcement of a discovery or new piece of knowledge. The goal is to explain the significance of your discovery and back it up with evidence as quickly as possible.”

OK, well the obvious answer would be that in research on education it is significantly more difficult to do these things. Teaching is supremely messy, and it has only been an object of research for about one hundred years. The problems with educational research are numerous. To start, different people have different understandings of the outcomes of education. (That’s true even if you limit yourself to the research that assumes we can measure these outcomes by giving kids a test.)

What counts as evidence in teaching? This is also more complex. Different schools exist. There is a need to carefully explain their assumptions and techniques, and this takes longer to do.

In short, your typical education research paper is more complicated than a …

I hope nobody wants to tell me that a typical education research paper is more complicated or sophisticated than a typical physics paper. So if physicists can do it, why can’t education researchers?

Well ok then.

Education research papers tend to also be very boring and full of jargon.

Says you!

Jargon serves only as a barrier-to-entry for those who are not on the “inside” of your little crowd. Many fields do this on purpose (some parts of philosophy, for example) so that only the indoctrinated read the papers, lest their entire field be found out as a con.

Umm well this is getting pretty conjectural for my tastes. The possibility that it’s just harder to express true things in education vs. physics doesn’t seem to be considered.

I really wonder what Gary would think about psychological research in general. Those studies are likewise long, likewise “jargon”-ized. For good reason. It’s hard to talk about human beings. It takes time and care to say the thing that you want to say. And an important part of the work of psychology and educational research is identifying new concepts (jargon) that might provide explanatory power.

Though I have an easy time agreeing with this:

They tend to be boring partly because of their length and partly because no effort has been made into crafting a succinct, well-written, memorable message for the paper. It’s not uncommon for me to get 10 pages into an education research paper and think: Why have they done this? What’s the point in this paper? What are they trying to tell me?

It seems crazy to me that we’ve created a research system that prioritizes the creation of knowledge over its dissemination. We aren’t trying to figure all these things out to put ’em in a jar!

Much of the most interesting and informative educational research is highly quantitative.

And much of the rest of it is qualitative! You need both. Everyone knows this. Different methods are appropriate for different research needs. Psychologists know this. Education researchers know this. It’s like saying consonants are the most informative letters.

How can we fix it? This is the really depressing part, because I can’t really see how things are going to change.

I like Jack Schneider’s ideas. I like Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships. I hold out some hope that online communities can help researchers and teachers come together.

At the end of his piece, Gary suggests that teachers could have a role as writers who review research. I think this is a great idea! I do think that if we can find ways to create a community of teacher-writers that could do a great deal to help us make intellectual progress. How to do that is its own puzzle, though.

Anyway, I’ve said enough. Gary — are you out there? — I’d love to continue the conversation some time. I’m no expert on anything, but the above is my take.


Boring Pershan Web Presence Stuff

Hopefully by putting “Pershan” in the title I’ve scared off anyone from reading on…

…though what a bizarre impulse it is to want to write something publicly that you don’t want anyone to read. On second thought it’s not that I don’t want people to read this, it’s just that I want people to know that know that this isn’t important stuff. I want to avoid presumption.


I have a blog problem. My first blog was great but then I decided to end it. There were a few reasons for that. Something about my blogger routine constantly drew my attention to my web stats, to the extent that it got distracting. I also wanted to establish that my blog could end, that a blog didn’t have to be a running platform but could be a self-contained project. I thought that my next blog was going to be nice and tight, focused on a single issue. I just had to find the right issue.

Well, that was this blog. I called it “Problem Problems” — are there any good blog titles? — with the thought that I’d focus on problem solving, especially problem solving strategies. One thing led to another, fine, but I still wrote a lot of stuff here about problem solving.

I’m officially calling an end to that experiment. (In a way, this essay is the culmination of the super-focused-blog thought.) The title of this blog has been recast as “Teaching With Problems — seriously, are there? — to emphasize that the problems are with my teaching as much as they are mathematical. And while I hope to avoid sprawling too much, I do want to give myself permission to write about whatever I feel like writing about.

There might be something more here. We go through periods of sprawl and focus. The last few years have felt like a time of doubling down for me. I’ve thought really hard about feedback and about the role of research in my life. I don’t really know where to go from here, though. So…let’s spread out a bit. Sing when the spirit says sing, stomp when the spirit says stomp, etc. (Parenthood, man.)

There really is no road map for a teacher interested in doing stuff that’s professionally relevant. That’s fine. One thing that the last few years has clarified for me is that, primarily, I see myself as a teacher and a writer. That’s what I enjoy the most (more than presenting or writing curriculum) and I think it’s truest to my online activity. That means that, primarily, I should be teaching and writing. That’s as much as I’ve figured out.

Being More Than Digital

Two passages I can’t stop thinking about, from Alan Jacobs’ “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation.”

On online discourse:

One of the best ways of evaluating written work is to begin with the question: What sort of response does this text invite?

On online commentary:

Our current circumstances call us to reflect on the way that the Internet enables amateur commentary — in both the best and the worst senses of “amateur,” and every other sense in between. The amateur commentator does not feel so strongly the impulse to novelty, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the amateur commentator is also not vocationally committed to avoiding the defacement of that on which he or she comments.

While reading Jacobs’ essay, I couldn’t stop thinking about online teaching communities, and what we might hope from them.

What might it look for an online community of teachers to cultivate a culture of teaching? Could it be distinctive? Could it really leap from the online to the real world? Does it already?

(More, from Jacobs: “The digital environment disembodies language in this sense: it prevents me from discerning the incongruity between my self-presentation and my person.”)

My sense is that we aren’t there yet. The first obstacle relates to Jacobs’ first passage. An online community is, at least right now, a community of writers. What sort of response does our writing invite? I worry that our writing (our blogging) does not often enough invite commentary. Are the insights of the teaching community accumulating? Are they connecting, forming something greater than a collection of individual posts?

Is this a community not just of learning, but one that is itself learning?

(I remember once being told that a main function of the online math teaching community is support. That is, a place of empathy for teachers whose teaching finds no love in their schools and departments. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible. A thriving community does not need to be a learning community.)

The second obstacle relates to something Justin raises later on twitter. “A local department has only a local culture to remember.” Is it possible for a community of teachers to really generate a local wisdom that isn’t actually local?

The third obstacle is digital culture itself. It’s tempting to think of digital culture as the absence of any culture, or at least there was a time when this was a pretty common temptation. Hopefully now we know this is not true, and Jacobs’ theses articulate features of this culture that could spell trouble for digital communities. The disembodiment of our words from our actions. The tools that we are granted — like twitter — and the sort of skitter-skatter attention they encourage. The smooshing of experts and novices that happens on twitter, which I think has the effect of encouraging us all to talk in confident, preaching, explaining tones.

With all of this, I’m still optimistic about our prospects. But reading Jacobs makes me think just how important it is to make sure that our communities are not just digital. All of our eggs should not be in the twitter-and-blogs basket, because we do not want to be constrained by our technologies. It’s important that we be something that supercedes any particular tool, and my optimism comes from the fact that this is increasingly true.

This is why, I think, Lisa Henry is a hero. Christopher Danielson too. It’s also why I am enthusiastic about the get-togethers we are planning in NYC this summer. I heard there’s something happening in Atlanta. In the Bay Area too? These are such good things.

If our community is more than digital, then there’s more hope that our digital culture can bend towards our needs.

When Your Teaching Does Stuff On Its Own

For my thirteenth birthday my mom gave me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. That was probably my first exposure to a line that I’ve since sometimes heard writers espouse, which is that their fictional characters can surprise them. King says: “your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. . . . And it will solve a lot of your problems, believe me.”

What a weird thing to say! But I think it’s actually a fairly common phenomenon. When I’m teaching, sometimes I know what I’m doing, but often I don’t. I’m just doing. And sometimes this leads to changes in my teaching that sort of just…happen.

Here’s an example. At some point over the past nine months — I couldn’t tell you when — I started asking kids to try to “add-on” to other kids’ comments. Juan shares an strategy, I ask, Can anyone add-on to that idea? Adding-on is helpful. It’s now a stock phrase of mine, I must say it three times daily.

And I think it’s helped! Conversations are only conversations if we’re responding. The opposite of adding-on is announcing. At the extremes, it’s no longer a conversation but a series of monologues. Those don’t help us learn how to talk about math.

There are other little things like this that have piled up this year. These changes feel connected, but I don’t know how.

Here’s another one. I’ve started reminding kids to ask lots of questions. I used to stand back and even try to disappear into the background. Now, though, I’m trying to paint question-asking as an important part of being a math student, the difference between being stumped and learning. Not all the time, but I definitely say something like “And try to ask questions, asking questions is good” a few times a day.

Does that have anything to do with asking for add-ons? Maybe it goes like this: I’m starting to put my finger on specific actions that help kids learn in my classes. That seems like part of it, at least.

Here’s a last way that my teaching has changed this year all on its own. I’ve changed some of my prompts for thinking to include a prompt for kids to “study” something. Study this diagram for a few seconds. What can you figure out? I don’t know how or when this phrase entered my teaching, but I like it. It describes what I want students to do while thinking. I don’t want them to look at a diagram, or to check out the diagram. I want thought, investment. “Studying” suggests a sort of seriousness, but it’s also open-ended. (It’s not “calculate” or “find.”)

Maybe I’ll look back in a year and be able to see how all these little changes are related, part of a flock. Maybe someone else can see it now. At this moment, I’m grasping at straws.

It seems to me that there’s this race between what we do and what we understand about what we do, and the race never stops. Sometimes what we understand gets ahead of what we can do, and maybe that’s what clarity feels like. And sometimes what can do is ahead, and that feels like instinct. And maybe when the race is close, that’s what it feels like to be confused, or to have your instincts fail you. But — and this is where the race metaphor falls apart — this is a good place for both parties, what we know and what we do. It’s a productive conflict.

I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t really worry about whether teaching will ever become boring. Those fears are long past!