Learning is Weird

I. 

There I was, helping Samantha with some subtraction, when I hear another kid nearby — Lena — cracking up, really losing it. Lena was laughing, and though I try to ignore her, she’s laughing persistently. Lena turns and looks at me with a huge, ridiculous smile across her tiny little third grader face.

“It’s just zero!” she says.

“Yep,” I say. I force a smile.

“It’s just zero!” she says it again. I try to grin convincingly back, as my mind races. What’s so funny?

“Haha, that’s right,” I replied, hoping that I sounded sort of like a human does when they get a joke.

For context, here is what Lena was working on: a big-fat subtraction worksheet. Here is a sampling of some of the hilarious problems I’d included on the page:

120 – 30

Also:

21 – 2

Don’t forget:

110 – 60

And this classic:

8 – 3

You may also notice that this list of uproarious problems seems a bit on the easier side for third graders. For Lena (and Samantha) it was not. Subtraction has been coming exceedingly slowly for these kids — much slower than their multiplication, actually. It’s February, so we’re not anywhere near the finish line. Even so, I’m beginning to start to anticipate to realize that my time with my students is, ever so slowly, slipping away. I want these kids to have a good year next year in math, to be happy about school. I don’t want this to gnaw at me over the summer.

Anyway, Lena is cracking herself up so I have to go over and see what she’s up to. I look at her page. Suddenly, I’m in on the joke.

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You see Lena subtracts digit by digit, because someone taught her to do that. I don’t know exactly what to say — it’s not wrong, and she is so shaky with so much subtraction. It gets her in trouble with problems like 17 – 8, because she brings the 1 down unnecessarily. Still, it’s something to work with.

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But the thing is that she really needs to focus on each digit with all her attention. She can’t yet take that step back to see the problem as a whole. So there she is, with 251 – 251. Carefully, slowly, she considers each digit:

2 minus 2 is…0.

5 minus 5…0 as well.

1 minus 1…wait a second…

And there you go, there’s the joke, it’s just zero.

II.

Ooh, by the way, Samantha is pretty interesting too.

Samantha also does that column-by-column thing, and it serves her well until she gets to problems like 125 – 50, since you can’t take away 5 from 2.

She started the year trying to borrow in these situations, but she really lost all sense of gravity as soon as she got permission to mess with the numbers. She’d do some of the weirdest things I’d ever seen with subtraction — I can’t remember them, they’re so weird. All I remember is that a bunch of times she would proudly shove a piece of paper in front of me and with, like, innocent puppy eyes, ask, “Is this right?”

And 100% of the time the paper would look like this:

125 – 50 = 972

Seriously! It was all over the place.

My take is that Samantha’s brain is just overloaded when she tries to keep track of all the parts of these problems. Every stage of it requires understanding and attention. She uses a strategy to compute 12 – 5, to take away 1, to realize that this leaves 0, to turn the 2 into a 12, to realize that this is, you know, subtraction so it should make things smaller, etc., etc.

I don’t think she should be going all-in on borrowing yet, not until she has a bit more knowledge to rest on.

But what do we do for her? Samantha asks for lots of help, and until recently I’ve been a bit stumped about how to help her.

I think I might have figured it out, though. The other day Samantha comes over to me, once again stumped on a problem. Her paper looks like this:

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I have a false start, going into some totally different strategy for subtracting. Whatever, she gets that far-off stare, she can’t deal with all of it. It’s another way of thinking — it’s not her way of thinking which — for better or for worse — is column-by-column subtraction.

I think, and then I have an idea. She can, I know, subtract two-digit numbers — it’s laborious, but she can do it. So I write an example next to the problem on her page. How about this, I say?

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OK, this actually makes sense to her! She uses it to work on the original problem. I offer to give her some more questions to practice — she completes each, surprised that she’s handling the problems correctly.

Is there more to notice here? Sure there is. She should know that the “32” in “324” means 320,  she should know how to handle 320 – 150 without drawing little lines, and down the line I sure hope that 32 – 15 doesn’t take quite so much out of her.

But has she learned something? By any fair reckoning, of course she has.

III.

Math class should be joyous, they say, full of laughter and insight. I agree! But it seems that a lot of people in education go further, as they’re eager to point you to the source of classroom joy. See this? It’s a picture of kids smiling while studying math. Want it? You’ve got to try instructional practice X, Y and Z.

I promise, you, though, that kids and learning are weirder than that. You’ll plan for fun, and they’ll hate it. The next day you’ll run out of fresh ideas, open a new browser window, type in www dot kuta software dot com slash free dot html, print out worksheets with answer keys, sort of just push them over the desks until each kid has a sheet nearby, then mumble incoherently for a couple of minutes when all you’d really like to say is “here is this, I’m sorry, please do it” and you’ll brace for the worst…

…and that will be the day when everyone is having a blast with math, even Tobias, which is surprising because Tobias has just been sitting there quietly since October when he broke up with Julia, and like you told his mother it’s been very tricky to get him to open up, but there he is chatting about exponent rules with Harry, and he seems alive and (to be honest) happy in a way that you haven’t seen him in a long time.

(In case you missed it, we moved from third to eighth grade with that last bit.)

All of this is to say that joy and humor in a classroom can come from where you’d least expect it — depending on what you expect.

And Samantha? Well, people will also tell you that you need to listen to the ideas of students, to truly build on their thinking, not to override their thinking but to build on it.

I agree. But what does it look like to build on how your students think? What if your student thinks about a problem in a way that isn’t just wrong, but wrong in the wrong way? It’s not just that her technique is incomplete, but it feels like a trick, like a machine that was designed to perform half the job, like a car that can only turn left?

I’m not always sure that I understand the difference between procedural and conceptual knowledge, but I think Samantha’s case is clear. She has a (half-working) procedure married with a not-quite-there-yet conceptual grounding. Is this a time to accept what she knows and to develop it? Or to dismiss her approach and bring her back to square one, conceptually speaking? Is this an exception to the rule — a time when we shouldn’t build on what she knows, but should instead sort of veer around her structures and start construction on a new lot?

Learning is weird — it will surprise you. Procedures can be a start. Subtraction can be hilarious. Go ahead, come up with a theory about how all of this works, but be ready to find out that something entirely different gets the same results. Share what you’ve found, and then also have the humility to know that something quite different might work as well.

I love being able to laugh about math with kids, and learning how kids think is just about my favorite part of this job. I love that so many people in education want classrooms to be joyous places where children feel understood — I want that too. But if you find yourself setting terms on how this can happen or what this looks like, please proceed with caution: it doesn’t look just one way.

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My beef with Sunil Singh’s piece about math and math education

I.

If you’re just joining us: I wrote this, some people liked it, others did not. Sunil Singh, whose post I was critiquing, understandably didn’t like what I had to say.

(He also didn’t like how I said it. Admittedly, I was a bit obnoxious. But Sunil’s rhetoric was not kind either and, dammit, sometimes two wrongs do make a right. Happy to deescalate the rhetoric, though.)

As I see it, Sunil’s core argument in his post goes like this:

  • People, in general, hate math
  • It’s math education’s fault
  • The problem is that math education has deviated from the purposes and values of math (as identified by Francis Su)
  • Math needs to take back math education — in particular, mathematicians need to direct math education

I wanted to make sure I was understanding the argument correctly — it seems to check out with Sunil.

Now, the goal here is to reconstruct Sunil’s argument in a way that he would recognize — maybe, if we do a really good job, in a way that he would recognize as even clearer than his own version.

Towards that, let’s try to clarify: what exactly would it mean for mathematicians to “take back” math education? This gets clearer from Sunil’s examples of where math education has gone wrong. He calls out homework as a major problem (“homework is on life support”). He wants to get rid of grades. He wants to radically change assessment. He thinks math education has been infected by financial and political forces. He says math education is not operating in the best interest of children.

The point being that it’s not only classroom teaching that is making children hate math — it’s everything, the whole system. Mathematicians need to be in charge of all this.

And who are these “mathematicians”? Am a mathematician? The problem, as Matt Enlow points out, is that while the term “mathematician” can mean “someone who gets paid to do mathematics” or “someone who has received an unusual amount of training in mathematics,” it can also mean “a lover of mathematics, someone committed to the discipline.” (The exact same difficulty surrounds words like “artist” or “educator.”)

Sunil Singh isn’t a professional working mathematician, so let’s assume that he means to use “mathematician” broadly.

His argument, all together, therefore goes like this: If mathematicians — people who love and truly get mathematics — had control of math education, there’s no way it would look the way it does. There would be no homework. There would be none of this testing to decide who is worthy or unworthy of more math. There would be no grades. The universal values of mathematics would be the focus of education: play, justice, truth, beauty and love. Students would have a chance to learn math that truly interests them, not the garbage we throw at them in algebra classes. They’d learn the “dream team” of beautiful math, not a hierarchy of topics on this inevitable, dreary march to nowhere. 

This, as I understand it, is Sunil’s argument.

II.

I disagree with basically all of it.

Not because the status quo in math education is ideal to me. I don’t like grades, I think they’re overall bad for learning. I think the math curriculum is over-stuffed and deserves a healthy pruning. Our current testing regime in the US is nuts, and my experience with NY’s Regents exams have all been frustrating.

But here’s the thing about mathematicians and math education: you don’t have to sit and wonder what a math education designed by people who love and truly get math would look like. It’s not some mystery. University math departments are designed and filled exclusively with people who love math so much that they’ve signed up for a lifetime of studying and teaching it.

You know what’s coming next, right? Because university math courses are, on the whole, taught far more poorly than k-12 math courses. Where were all the mathematicians when they were designing entrance exams to decide which Calculus section you get to sign up for? Where is the play and exploration in Abstract Algebra classes? Why is the dominant pedagogy notes and lecture? What on Earth is the deal with a class like Math 55?

And it’s also not some sort of mystery what professional lovers of math advocate for when it comes to k-12 education. They call for more rigor, they worry that their students are coming with weaker skills than they used to, they criticize textbooks for having ever-so-fuzzy definitions, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they aren’t exactly lining outside of the statehouse asking k-12 educators to ditch all that algebra.

The way I see things, Singh’s mistake is in thinking that math education is some deviation from the desires of mathematicians and lovers of mathematics. I mean, yes, k-12 math education absolutely is a deviation from a particular vision of math that Singh articulates. But if you look at university teaching and if you look at the rigor, precision, and gate-keeping that mathematicians frequently call for in k-12 education, you can see that this isn’t a deviation; it’s a reflection of what a major segment of the math-loving population wants out of math education.

Singh’s piece was written as a polemic against math education. This is entirely unfair, though, as math education and math culture are codependent. The issues with math education are equally issues facing the broader mathematical community.

Mathematicians and lovers of mathematics love to hate on math education and its deviations. But it’s the lovers of mathematics who have set up the system that we have. They protect it and extend it into higher education. It’s painful to see that some of the problems we have in math education can even spring from that love — from a desire to protect mathematics, or a desire to spread mathematics.

And realizing all of this is a way to realize that Singh’s diagnosis is incorrect. The problems with math education come from the competing desires that non-mathematicians along with mathematicians want from k-12 classrooms. Mathematicians may want students to be exposed to the beauty of math, but they equally want to find the gifted few who can enroll in their college classes, and they want those students to be well-prepared. Lovers of mathematics want to make sure that the discipline — which they love — is well-understood and used by the populace. And they want to make sure that engineers, doctors, accountants, NSA hackers, software designers, everyone is given a solid grounding in math. And, like the rest of us, they want to think that everyone gets a fair shot at any of those jobs.

You can’t improve math education without understanding what exactly is going on. Singh’s vision of mathematics isn’t universal among lovers of math, even among those who really know and get it. (Unless we say no true lover of math would disagree with Singh’s vision, which is totally cheating.)

We’ll never improve math education in our current system by trying to blow it up, and I think that would only make things worse. I have a great respect for those who operate outside of the world of math education who try to spread their love of the field more widely. But here in the world of math education, we’re all trying to figure out how to help kids deal with the mess that mathematicians and everyone else have left us.

And, actually, we’re making some progress. So ease up on the attack on math education.

Should I see my son’s misconceptions?

I.

Yosef turns three tomorrow — happy birthday, kid! My sister got him some new puzzles for his birthday, and that’s how we spent a big chunk of the afternoon.

This is his first foray into “big kid” puzzles. We had no idea he was ready for them, and he can do a lot of it on his own, though he always asks for help. (Like every three year-old, he likes attention from grown-ups.)

While he’s been playing, I’ve been watching and trying to make sense of how he’s thinking. As far as I can tell, his main strategy is to match the pictures of pieces: fish goes with fish, yellow with yellow, etc. He also has an eye for missing pieces — meaning, he matches holes with pieces that are congruent to the holes.

One thing that’s fascinated me: he doesn’t really notice the difference between edge pieces and interior pieces. Here he is, trying to stick an edge piece into the middle of the puzzle.

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I got curious, so I started asking him about potential fits. Could this piece go here?

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He never mentions the shape of the piece, or the way that it would partly stick out. When I asked him about this piece he only mentioned the color. When I swapped out the yellow piece would another green-sea colored one, he would try to smoosh it into the hole. Only then would he tell me why it wouldn’t work — “It doesn’t go in the hole.”

Now, I honestly don’t care how well or poorly he solves puzzles. But learning stuff is fun, and I was curious whether I could help him see the difference between edge and inside pieces.

“Look Yosef,” I said. Just like in that picture, one of those inside pieces was along the top row of pieces, protruding out of the frame. I put my finger at the top of the puzzle on the top left side of the puzzle, and I slowly dragged my finger to the right. “My finger can just keep going, going, going…until it bumps into this. Bonk! This piece doesn’t belong!”

Yosef laughed. “Bonk!” he said. “Bonk!”

“But look Daddy. If my finger goes like this” — he loops down into the interior of the puzzle, far below the top row of pieces, slowly meanders up until it reaches the false piece, right under where my finger had bumped — “if it goes like this, then it doesn’t bump.”

Which was true! Had to cop to that.

He returned to the puzzle. He matched pictures — dolphin into dolphin, clownfish to clownfish — and every so often mystified me by quickly intuiting where a piece went. He also continued to shove edge pieces all along the inside of the puzzle.

I wasn’t lying when I said that I didn’t care how he plays with these puzzles…but doesn’t it just kill you to watch someone painstakingly — delicately with care — try like seventeen different ways of putting an inside piece into the side of a puzzle?

I mostly keep my mouth shut and let him have fun. He’s clearly not seeing edge pieces yet, which is interesting, but obviously fine.

Every once in a while though, I nudge at his understanding. “Pass me an edge piece,” I’ll say, hoping that he starts thinking of edge pieces as a distinctive category. If he asks me to fill in part of the puzzle I’ll talk aloud about my thinking: “This piece couldn’t go here because it doesn’t have a straight side.”

I have no idea if this stuff is connecting with him. Learning to see shapes in different ways is messy and slow. My little two-second nudges won’t make much of a difference to him — right up until he becomes ready for them, and then they might.

II.

It’s pretty clear to me that there are things about shapes and puzzle pieces that Yosef doesn’t yet understand. He’s three. Of course there are. But how should I think about his understanding? In some quarters of the math education world, the answer is contentious.

Brian Lawler is someone who has been incredibly patient with me on Twitter, as we’ve gone back and forth discussing his positions on the nature of mathematical knowledge, teaching and learning. He passionately believes that any talk of misconception is not only wrong-headed, but also the act of labeling someone as holding a misconception is harmful to that person. Ditto for a smattering of other terms that imply that the other person’s thinking is worse than your’s, or on the way to some better understanding — this includes talk of alternate conceptions, early conceptions, preconceptions.

Rochelle Gutierrez likewise asks us to refuse to talk of misconceptions.

These scholars aren’t talking about me doing math with my kid — they’re talking about the ways math teaching can beat down kids in a lot of school situations. Still, their arguments are that thinking in terms of misconceptions or even not-there-yet conceptions is harmful — even violent — to a math learner. Their framework should apply to me doing a puzzle with my son too, I think.

Now, it doesn’t seem entirely accurate to me to say that Yosef has misconceptions about puzzles or shapes. It’s not like he actively thinks that edges don’t matter — he just doesn’t see the difference between edge and interior pieces yet. Yet he has so many amazing things in his little-kid brain that help him put pieces together. He absolutely has a conception of shape that is letting him have a blast with puzzles, and he loves doing them with me. I love playing puzzles with him. I love him.

Is it still harmful for me to think and talk about the things he doesn’t yet see?

I try to be a good father to my children. This is not always easy with a three-year old, but I really do try. I think I’m getting more patient — hopefully in time for the baby’s turn at toddlerhood — and I try hard to give Yosef room to play with toys the way he wants to play with them. I certainly don’t want to visit “intellectual violence” (as the phrase goes) on him by getting all up in his face about the right way to do a freaking 48-piece puzzle. I’d rather save our conflict for when he’s dropping a block on his baby sister’s head.

At the same time, part of our play is learning. The kid wants to put the puzzle pieces in on his own. He wants me to help. He likes learning new things — he’s a kid, he’s deeply curious about the world. The world includes mathematical language. Every time we put on his shoes we end up doing a whole routine about left/right: No, that’s not left. It’s right. No, not right, right. Right. Left. That’s right. His conception of left/right is relatively weak — it’ll get stronger.

Kids love improving their conceptions of the world, if they really get a chance to feel like it’s their own conceptions that are improving. Humans are curious creatures, and we like improving. There are a million ways for this to go wrong and to turn into abuse — in a lot of schools, this is happening.

In a lot of schools and homes, though, it isn’t. I don’t think it’s inherently abusive to see your child’s misconceptions or to help them see things in a new and richer way. It can be, of course, and that abuse needs to be detailed and discussed.

III.

Some people might disagree with the above, but not many. The real question is a linguistic, or even a strategic one:

Does refusing to talk of ‘misconceptions’ cut down on the abuse?

Pretty much everyone I talk to online seems to think that this is a good way to chip away at the problem of abusive teaching practices. The first way this might chip away at the problem: the word “misconception” itself connotes the bad teaching practices. You can hardly use the word without being further nudged towards abuse — or you might nudge a colleague to abuse. If you eliminate the word, you eliminate the subconscious priming of yourself and of colleagues.

The second way: Changing your pedagogy is hard, and it’s easy to forget your principles. The refusal to talk of “misconceptions” is a relatively easy change to make, but it’s like a red string around your finger. It will remind you of your commitment to the proper pedagogy, and you’ll continuously improve as a result.

I actually think there really is something to that second thing, but I also think it’s incredibly risky for the cause of good pedagogy to tie it to refusing to use the word “misconception.”

It’s because my kid’s conception of shape really does have room to improve.

We see misconceptions in children because it really is true that there’s stuff that they don’t yet know. Noticing this doesn’t have to be an act of violence — in fact, I don’t think that it usually is. Usually it’s like me playing with my son and noticing there’s stuff he doesn’t yet know how to do, even as my mind is blown because oh my god my son is into puzzles! When did our baby turn into a kid?

Is it good pedagogy to ask people who don’t already see their pedagogy as abusive to forswear from using words that they use all the time? Isn’t this exactly the sort of “intellectual violence” that we’re being urged to refrain from? Shouldn’t we start with the way people actually see the world, rather than asking them to use language that is not their own?

Seriously: imagine what a teacher whose well-meaning administrator announces that they don’t want to hear any talk of misconceptions any longer, that this is now school policy. Is that good pedagogy?

There is real injustice and unkindness in this world, and I have no clue how to fix it. I think a focus on which words are allowed or not is a tactical mistake. Take any word that you associate with fear, abuse, pain; there are others out there who associate those same words with love, play and growth. To bridge those gaps we need to talk with each other and find a common language. That can only happen if we agree to use each others’ words.

Weird, Sloppy Rant about Giftedness

I.

People who know me or my work in the goyishe world sometimes ask me how my traditional Jewish education — which mostly involves learning to carefully analyze texts —  influences what I do in math education. “You’re super-duper pedantic but you read things closely,” they say. “Isn’t that a result of a life studying Talmud?”

The answer I tend to offer is something like: Who knows? I have a lot of friends from yeshiva, but most of them aren’t nearly as annoying as I am. So, really, who’s to say? Besides, I also studied philosophy, and philosophers aren’t exactly the most easy-going people of all-time either. Maybe philosophy is why I’m such a pain in the ass.

Some people have stories about how their upbringing or education has made them who they are today. But memory is a funny thing; it’s hardly a reliable witness. If we’re honest, how sure can we be about what made us who we have become? All this sort of backwards-speculation is just guessing, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

II.

OK, throat cleared, let’s speculate.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t a quote-unquote genius. That’s partly a matter of personality but it also accurately reflects the fact that nobody was ever, like, dude, Michael is breaking the system!

But, yes, ok, I was smart in school and made to feel that way by grades, peers, teachers, etc. I knew there were things I could do that others could not. The things people tell me I’m good at now are things that people were telling me then: that I ask good questions, that I read carefully, that I write clearly (if not quite, you know, beautifully).

Sarah HANNAH Gómez, in her tweets, says there’s a problem with gifted education. She was gifted, told she was smart, but never told to engage with classwork, to push herself, to really do anything at all. She says this is endemic to education and that teachers need to figure out ways to engage their most gifted students.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: in my yeshiva we were taught that we had an obligation to learn, and that obligations were a big deal. “Obligation to learn” means there’s optional Talmud class on Wednesday nights, and also on Sunday afternoons, and also on Thursday nights, and aren’t you going to stick around for it? Aren’t you a serious student?

There were silly parts of this culture, as there are of any culture. Kids trying to out-macho themselves by staying up late, attempting pious acts of learning into the early morning. For some kids it caused a lot of stress, when they were tracked into a middle shiur or out-shined by their classmates. There were stupid competitions about who could learn the most, and there was also a ridiculous award ceremony every year to honor the school’s top students.

(Though, I should add, being a “top student” didn’t mean you were a genius. It mostly meant that you took your studies seriously, logged a lot of hours, and also were a moral exemplar in the eyes of your teachers.)

I can’t imagine a gifted student at my high school somehow getting the message that he didn’t have to learn. That you had an obligation to learn was pretty much the whole point of the school.

You might wonder what our non-Jewish studies classes looked like, whether the same verve was applied to these other classes.

Based on what I saw, nah.

A lot of my other high school classes were a joke. There was not an obligation to e.g. know the Roman emperors or get really good at balancing chemical reactions. I remember reading a lot of textbook chapters during my free period, right before a 30-question multiple choice test.

(Many teachers used the same tests each year, and there was a shady tradition of kids saving the answers and inputting them into TI-83s, which they might get away with using on some test. This worked best for Mr. Rosenbaum’s AP Biology class, since you could often legitimately ask to use a calculator to help with genetic probabilities. Mr. Rosenbaum told us he was mystified why so many of us nailed the multiple choice but put no effort into the essay.)

Looking at my life since yeshiva, though, I think somehow I got bonked with the weird idea that there is an obligation to learn anything, especially if you can. I think I can thank my yeshiva for that idea, and I think that’s the sort of education that Sarah HANNAH Gómez wished she had received.

III.

The yeshiva is an educational institution rooted in scarcity. Your towns and cities needed scholars and rabbis, but how many people could the community support? You need wealth to support equality of opportunity. Post-Holocaust, though, many have found that wealth.

Yeshivas today hold together two ideas side-by-side: the historical belief that some students really are iluys, savants, and are destined for greatness, and the more democratic belief that each student has an obligation to reach their own potential.

My read of the culture is that the drive for equity is subservient to that towards serving giftedness. The reason for equality of opportunity is because everyone has an obligation to explore their own giftedness — the difference between local and global maxima.

(A story that has become popular: Reb Zusha lies on his deathbed, shaking in fear of the conversation he’ll have after he dies. “When I get to Heaven they won’t ask why I wasn’t like Moses; they’ll ask why I wasn’t more like Zusha.” One must imagine himself like Zusha, terrified.)

American schools, as Gómez points out, are largely not like this at all. In fact, they’re sort of the other way around, which makes sense for an institution borne out of plenty, not scarcity. American public schools exist for the least among us. (Initially, out of concern that left unschooled they would rip society to shreds.)

American public schools are the mirror image of yeshivas. The drive to teach gifted students comes out of a drive for equity, the belief that schools should teach everybody.

IV.

So, which is a better system? Should giftedness be subservient to equity? Should equity be subservient to giftedness?

The popular answer is that schools can achieve both, that neither concern has to be subservient to the other.

The way that plays out in yeshiva is that there’s a universal obligation to study — and therefore teach — each student to their ability. But no such obligation exists in mainstream culture.

I don’t really know how teachers, in general, think about the needs of the few vs. the needs of the many, the majority of class.

I know, for me personally, I experience this as a tension in my classrooms. I both want to help every student (I really do believe in an obligation to learn) while also making sure that gifted kids get to develop their gifts.

When I say I experience this as a tension, I mean that my efforts in one direction get in the way with my efforts in the other. There is no synthesis, no one way to teach that gives each student what, ideally, they would get.

I think Rochelle Gutierrez describes this well as the “inherent contradictions of teaching mathematics from an equity stance”:

Although teachers must recognize they are teaching more than just mathematics, they also have to reconcile that fact with the idea that, ultimately, they are responsible for helping students learn mathematics. Teachers who are committed to equity cannot concern themselves with their students’ self-esteem and negotiated identities to the exclusion of the mathematics that the students will be held responsible for in later years. Yet preparation for the next level of mathematics must also not be the overriding feature of a teacher’s practice. In answer to which of the two foci are important (teaching students or teaching mathematics), I would answer “neither and both.” It is in embracing the tension…”

That tension I feel as a teacher is the same tension I feel about myself as somebody with gifts. (Trite but true: we all have some.) You have to know that your gifts really are gifts — you really are gifted — also, nobody gives a shit about your gifts. You have an obligation to learn, and everyone has that same obligation. The more time you spend wondering if maybe you really are special, the less likely you are to do anything of value. This is the old growth mindset mantra, and it’s true, but it should only be concerning if you actually do want to do something of value.

So I think there’s maybe no way to solve this cleanly in mainstream US schools. The main thrust of classroom teaching is the need to reach everyone; gifted students are just another everyone. At the same time, there really are gifted students and they really do have different needs. And every inch in one direction takes away an inch in the other. As Labaree puts it, from the perspective of schools and teachers someone has to fail,

The tension is real, but I do think there’s something that would have helped a student like Gómez. Parents, teach your children: there is an obligation to learn.

 

Doodling the Axioms of Set Theory

Our son is almost three, and he’s starting to really like to draw. He’s also getting to the age where, if he doesn’t have something to do, he’ll tear our apartment to shreds, so most Sunday afternoons we dump a lunchbox of crayons and whatever paper we have on the floor. It’s arts and crafts time, Yosef!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like watching my kid draw as much as the next parent. (“It’s a fish? No, a dog? Oh, wow, that’s terrific.”) But, what can I say, I get a bit bored.

More to the point, drawing with crayons is so much fun. Arts and crafts time is great. So I draw along with him. And very often I find myself trying to doodle some math.

Lately I’ve been studying a book called Classic Set Theory. It’s been really working for me. It has great exercises, clear organization, oodles of historical context. It’s subtitled “For Guided Independent Study,” and it’s making me wonder why every math textbook isn’t for guided independent study too.

Set theory and logic was my way back into math. I was a philosophy major and had all sorts of worries about whether I could handle a college math class. Then I took a philosophy class about Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein, figures who stand at the creation of mathematical logic and set theory.

In that class, I was finally starting to understand how I had to study this stuff — line by line, ask myself lots of questions, don’t leave anything fuzzy. (Which is more of less how I know to study Talmud.) And I was realizing that if I put in this sort of effort, and if I was honest with myself about what I got and what I didn’t, I could understand some (if I do say so) ridiculously abstract stuff at at least a basic level.

“At some level,” because there was still a lot of stuff that I didn’t get. Since college, set theory and logic has been some of the math that I’ve read the most on. But I still haven’t felt like I really understood set theory, as I hadn’t been able to make much headway in any set theory text.

This is part of why Classic Set Theory is so much fun for me to read. Finally, I feel like I’m starting to get this stuff. Finally!

Here’s the question I found myself asking while drawing with my son today: what could the axioms of set theory* look like if you drew them?

The axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with the Axiom of Choice, I mean. I’d love to understand some of the other set theories better. During that class I took in college we studied type theory as Russell’s attempt to patch up the contradiction he discovered in Frege’s system, but I think I only ever had a surface-level understanding of what this meant.

There are nine axioms in all. I know that explanations work better when the objects to be explained are doing stuff, so I tried to make the axioms as active as possible in the drawings. In practice, this means I interpreted the axioms as little machines, rather than as rules or laws. (Axioms have always been presented to me as rules, and until the last couple of days that’s always how I’d always thought of them.)

The toughest one to visually represent was Replacement. The ones I’m most worried about having misrepresented are the Axiom of Infinity and of Foundation. Honestly, all of them are probably flawed in some way. There might be mathematical errors or misinterpretations — as long as you’re nice about it, would you point those out to me?

But I’m not sharing these as resources or to make some point about teaching. I’m sharing these out of celebration, and a bit of relief, that I might be finally figuring out how to learn some math on my own.

IMG_0645
Extensionality, Empty Set, and the Axiom of Pairs
IMG_0646
Axiom of Separation
IMG_0647
Power Set Axiom
IMG_0648
Union Axiom
IMG_0651
Axiom of Replacement
IMG_0649
Axiom of Infinity
IMG_0650
Axiom of Foundation
IMG_0652
Axiom of Choice

Study an example, see the world

I’ve been a math teacher in New York City since 2010, a few months after I graduated from college. It’s the only job I’ve ever had, besides for little things over the summer when I was a teen. (In order: babysitter, camp counselor, Pepsi vendor at Wrigley Field, tutor. All kind of relevant to teaching, come to think of it.)

Though I teach math, math didn’t feel easy for me as a student. It was never where I shined. An exception was geometry, with its heavy emphasis on proof. Proof felt natural for me in a way that algebra didn’t.

When I began teaching, I realized that for many students the situation is reversed — it’s proof that feels unnatural and cumbersome. Writing a proof involves combining statements in ways that seemed to mystify many students. This was especially true early in my career.

After a few years of hitting my head against the wall, I started to understand what made this such a difficult skill to teach. Proof is the closest that mathematics comes to writing, and writing itself is impossible without reading. How can a student who has never read an essay possibly write one? I concluded that my students needed to read more proofs.

It took me a few more years to understand how exactly to pull this off in class. My big frustration was that my students wouldn’t devote enough attention to the proof examples I shared. I would distribute a completed proof and ask the class to read it with care. Very often, it seemed that they missed the whole point of the proof. They couldn’t read it carefully yet — they didn’t know how.

Now, things go better when I share proofs in class. One big difference is I have a much better understanding of all the subtle conceptual understandings that go into a proof, many which were invisible to me at first. (In teaching, it can be trouble when a topic comes naturally to you.) There are many aspects of a proof that I need to help them uncover.

Besides for a better understanding of the subtleties of proof, I’ve learned to structure my activities in sturdier ways. I’ve learned to design these activities so that they have three parts:

  • The proof example
  • Comprehension questions about the example
  • Proof-writing practice, with the example as a model

I didn’t come to this structure on my own, by the way. I came to it through reading about Cognitive Load Theory (where these are sometimes called “example-problem pairs”) and especially from seeing it in some especially well-designed curricular materials:

Screenshot 2017-11-30 at 6.49.21 PM.png

Also:

Screenshot 2017-11-30 at 6.50.45 PM.png

 

(In fact, I didn’t really understand how to make my own example activities until I saw many models in these curricular materials. I needed examples, myself.)

So, for instance, I created this proof example for my students this year:

DM8ANAWWsAACjSC.jpgLooking back, the example isn’t perfect. It ended up being a bit visually crowded, and it might have been better to eliminate some of the letter-abbreviations. In class, I actually covered up each stage of the proof to focus their attention on each part.

In any event, this activity shows a lot of what I’ve learned about teaching proof. I knew I wanted to make explicit the complicated two-stage structure of some congruence arguments, so I worked hard to create a pretty clear example for my students. I then called on students to answer a trio of analysis questions about the proof — there’s a lot to notice, and students don’t yet know how to notice the underlying structure of this kind of proof all on their own. Finally, I ask students to use what they’ve noticed on a related pair of problems, so that students see that there’s something here that’s generalizable to many different kinds of diagrams.

Even when my proof activities aren’t structured so rigidly, I try to include variety and a chance to practice. Here is a simpler activity, but I still call for students to do a bit of proof-completion in the second prompt:

DM8ANArXkAItunW.jpgSometimes when I talk to other teachers about examples, they tell me they’re worried that kids will just try to unthinkingly copy the model. I do know what they mean, but it’s not what I see with my kids. I think that part of the reason is that I reserve example-analysis for when I worry that the math is going to be difficult, even overwhelming for many students. There is certainly a way to misuse these activities, and perhaps if I used these sorts of tasks on less complex material I would see unthinking imitation.

One of my jobs is to help students see things that they can’t yet see — things like the logical structure of a good mathematical argument, or the way just a tiny bit of information about a shape can guarantee a whole lot more. When things don’t come naturally to my students, what I’m learning to do is to design an activity that opens up a little window into the mathematics so they can learn to see new things.

Addendum (1/6/18): I just came across this lovely line from Paul Halmos:

A good stack of examples, as large as possible, is indispensable for a thorough understanding of any concept, and when I want to learn something new, I make it my first job to build one.

Addendum: On Discovery and Inquiry

I.

I appreciated some of the disagreement that got aired as a response to my last piece, on discovery. In particular, some told me that guided-inquiry or discovery really is more memorable than other forms of instruction.

Either because the stuff you learn from discovery is more meaningful (and hence more memorable):

Screenshot 2017-11-07 at 9.31.30 AM

…or because discovery involves surprise, and surprises are more memorable and lead to stronger learning:

Screenshot 2017-11-07 at 9.29.10 AM

I’m not satisfied with either of these arguments.

The thing about discovery activities is that the new idea — by definition of discovery — comes at the end of the activity. That means that kids are spending most of the activity thinking about stuff besides the new, often difficult, idea. It takes time to understand new ideas — to make them meaningful, to “own” them — and most of the time in a discovery activity is spent thinking about other stuff.

That’s certainly the case for the triangle angle activity that I critiqued in my post. While working on the activity, a student’s attention is drawn to many mathematical things — the angles, protractors, adding angles — and only very little of the time is spent thinking about what exactly a triangle’s angles sum to. (This is especially true if the idea is truly new to a student — they’ll only be thinking about the sum once they discover it, towards the end of the activity.)

It’s also true in the trapezoid/triangle area task that I shared. There was a ton of excitement precisely because my class hadn’t discovered the relationship between bases and area yet. That was where the joy was coming from — that also means that they were thinking about the discovered relationship for comparatively little of the time spent on the activity.

As I argued in the original post, that’s OK for me. It was fun and beautiful, and kids should have a chance to articulate slippery patterns and feel the pleasure of discovery. That’s part of math that I enjoy sharing with kids.

Anyway, that’s my response to the idea that discovery is more memorable because it’s more meaningful. Ideas are meaningful when you have time to get used to them, and that’s precisely what gets lost in a discovery activity.

As far as the idea that guided inquiry is surprising, and surprising stuff is more effective: why can’t you structure an explanation to elicit prior knowledge and surprise students? Aren’t explanations sometimes surprising? I think they can be.

Of course, how to craft effective explanations — that surprise and really engage students — is not easy, but it doesn’t get any easier if we don’t talk and write about it. That was part of my argument in Beyond “Beyond Explaining.”

II.

This is all theory, though. What happened in class today, after the weekend, after the memorable discussion on Friday?

I ask them to find the area of a trapezoid and…it’s like Friday never happened.

Wait what?

Hold on what do you mean the same as a triangle?

Could we go over this again?

The only kid who remembered how to find the area of the trapezoid — and I promise this is true, and not just me making up details to annoy advocates of discovery — was the kid who had connected Friday’s lesson to a formula that she once knew.

No guys, it’s the sum of the bases times half the height.

This is sort of surprising and disappointing. Friday’s class was so good! And nearly everybody was involved in the inquiry/discovery/discussion. It felt wonderful and it was fun.

That class, for me, was discovery that’s about as good as it usually gets. And yet it failed to stick over the weekend.

And yet this isn’t that surprising. The kids didn’t get a chance to practice the idea on Friday because we spend the class time uncovering some super-cool math. Kids need practice to remember ideas, and discovery takes a long time. This is just how it goes.

But if it’s not surprising, it’s also not disappointing. It was a lot of fun, and everybody was involved. It’s not what my class is like every day, and it would probably frustrate kids if it were.

So, at least this time, anecdote matches argument. And since we started practicing finding the area of trapezoids today,  it’s getting a lot more meaningful for my kids.

A typically wishy-washy take on discovery in math class

I think of myself as a non-discovery math sort of teacher, but every once in a while I find myself asking kids to discover stuff. I recently did this in my geometry classes, with a dot-paper area activity.

I really like dot paper. On dot paper you can make precise statements about area that typically generalize nicely to non-dot scenarios. The same basic relationships apply, it’s just easier to see them in a dot world.

My idea was to share this picture with students, and ask them to find the area of each shape. (This is the version that I marked up under the camera in class. None of the purple or blue ink was in the original.)

Picture 1.JPG

All of these shapes have the same height — 4 — but they otherwise differ. The first is a rectangle that has area 8. Next was a parallelogram: also area 8. Then a trapezoid. Many students came up with the idea of drawing a line to split it into a triangle and a rectangle — together they have area 8. This didn’t occur to every kid, though, so there was a good deal of neighbor-asking and chat to get the hang of those trapezoids.

Spoilers: every shape here has area 8! There’s something else they share too: the sum of their top and bottom bases is always 4. (The weirdest case is the triangle, that has a bottom of base of 4 and [arguably] a top base of length 0!)

So that was what I wanted my kids to come to notice and articulate. And I wanted it to be fun, and feel like they were discovering something new.

Not because I think that learning is more effective when kids discover something new, or that they’re working on their discovering skills or anything. Just because I think it’s fun for them to uncover patterns. It’s a cool part of math, and I’m trying hard to share more of the cool parts of math with my students, along with working on their skills and knowledge etc.

Here then is my take on discovery in math class:

  • It can be fun to discover cool stuff about math.
  • It takes longer for kids to understand something via discovering, and doesn’t really confer a learning advantage.
  • But if the activity is relatively brief and I can spare the time, why not? I want my students to think math is fun and cool.

This is my unprincipled take. I like discovery for fun and color in class, and I don’t feel the need to aim for 100% efficiency in every second of my teaching.*

Whether you feel such a need — or need to feel such a need — probably varies a lot depending on your school, administration, students, etc. My guess, though, is that the vast majority of teachers don’t feel this need, and probably are correct in this feeling.

Lots of discovery activities are uninteresting to me. Though I absolutely love the practice exercises in Discovering Geometry, the discovery activities largely leave me cold. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’ve fallen out of love with:

dg discovery.png

My issue with this activity isn’t that it’s discovery. It’s that it’s not such a cool pattern (most kids have seen it before taking a geometry class), so discovering it isn’t as surprising or fun. The activity takes a while — do it once, check, do it twice — and all that is probably to protect against the risk of incorrect measurement, which is another tedious aspect of this discovery activity. And, at the end of all this, what cool math have you uncovered? Relatively little — just a sum. You don’t see any new relationships or geometric structure that guarantees that the triangle will have such a sum.

Why bother with all this? I’ve decided that this sort of discovery activity isn’t much use for me. But that’s not a principled objection against discovery — it’s just that I don’t think this type of activity is worth it.

Speaking of “types of activity,” I think it’s fair to categorize this angle sum activity as discovering something easy to articulate. Check an example, check an example, check an example, woah it’s always the same. You don’t uncover the geometric relationship in this activity. I think that’s part of what makes it not much fun and sort of tedious.

I think discovering something hard to articulate (I’m not quite sure what to name this) tends to be more fun, more cool.

To illustrate this, here’s the conversation that went along with my “area 8” activity in class.

I began the conversation with a prompt to my students: what do all these shapes share? how do these shapes differ?

I called on James first.

James: They all have heights and bases of 4.

I said that I didn’t entirely get that, and asked if anyone also saw that. Robin came up to the board to point. She also subtly refined Jame’s claim.

Robin: A lot of them have a common theme that either the height is 4 or the base of 4.

Then Liam chimed in to make it precise and accurate:

Liam: The height is always 4. The bases are different though.

Luiz: Yeah, the bases are either 2 or 4…or no they vary. Sometimes it’s 1, 2, sometimes it’s none.

Then Sara chimes in. She started articulating a generalization — she was WORKING HARD to try to articulate some sort of generalization. Her first one wasn’t entirely accurate though. I loved how she put it as a question.

Sara: Wait, does that mean that any shape that has a height of 4 has an area of 8?

The class and I (and Sara) agreed: this just could not be true. (Luiz says: well you could have a base of 1000.) Jess tried to get clearer about what was special about all these shapes.

Jess: No this is just because they are all parallelograms and…wait the third one is sort of confusing. What is that?

[Insert a minute of discussion about which of these are trapezoids and which are parallelograms.]

After this, I decided that we wouldn’t be able to restart the conversation unless I summarized and took some notes. So I wrote some notes on the board.

This time, though, I decided to take a heavier hand to draw attention to something really cool. The kids hadn’t noticed it yet, and I wanted to make sure that they did.

I wrote the numbers that you saw in purple ink in my image. I wrote the top and bottom bases.

Sara: So couldn’t you say that it’s base 1 plus base 2, times the height and that’s the area. Like for shapes in general.

Very close! There are some gasps and agreements.

Samantha: So wait does that work for everything?

Sara: Yeah that’s what I’m asking.

Me: That’s a good question. I’m trying to find some dot paper.

Joe: Wait so does it?

That question just hangs there for a second. And here’s a choice I could make. I could act coy, refuse to answer, and insist that the thinking here come from the students.

But then you get this weird dynamic in class where kids never know if they’re getting a straight answer from the teacher or not. I don’t like that dynamic. I like it when kids ask questions about math, and I like that they can get a straight answer out of me. And would they spend more time thinking about this cool relationship if I answered that question, or if I refused to?

“The answer is yes, sort of.”

GASPS.

Sara: Does it have to have parallel lines? Does it have to be a trapezoid…wait does a parallelogram count as a trapezoid.

Good thinking, Sara!

While there’s thinking kind of just toppling out of Sara’s head, I’m searching for a blank piece of dot paper, because there’s something that I realize might help. I don’t want them to get too used to the area 8 case — that might lead to a false generalization, since Sara keeps on saying that it’s double the sum of the bases. (That’s true when the height is 4, but not when the height is something else.)

So I draw this:

Picture 2.JPG

We clocked in at about 10 minutes there. No question that this was not as effective as a worked example or something else more carefully designed for learning. But I wasn’t aiming for efficacy. I was aiming for those half-articulations, those gasps, that enthusiasm. And as long as I don’t come to worship those gasps and chase them exclusively, class will be a bit closer to being fun, cool.

Addendum: this follow-up post.

 

 

YouCubed is Sloppy About Research

I.

There’s a lot of sloppy talk of science that gets tossed around education. Every teacher knows this — or least, I hope they do — and I try not to get too worked up about it. I also try not to get worked up by people who wear backpacks on crowded subways. Not that it’s OK, but lots of people do it (the backpack thing) and picking any one person to bark at hardly seems like it would help.

The other thing is that people can be really passionate about sloppy science. This happens all the time, it’s nothing special about education. But passion makes it hard to talk critically about the research without it seeming like you’re attacking everything else that the person is passionate about.

I think a lot of the time it’s because we assume that the attack on the research isn’t really about the research, it’s about everything else it supports. It’s like, Why are you bothering to poke holes in [research that supports X]? You’d only do that if you were really against [X]. 

Which leads to an interesting question. Is it possible, at all, to avoid this trap? Is it possible to critique sloppy use of research without being heard as if you’re trashing a person, their organization, and everything they stand for?

II.

What if you ask a lot of rhetorical questions — does that help?

Anyway, let’s talk about YouCubed. I think there’s something that — if we slow down, turn off passion, turn on curiosity — we can agree is a serious mistake. Here’s a popular quote from their popular page, Mistakes Grow Your Brain:

When I have told teachers that mistakes cause your brain to spark and grow, they have said, “Surely this only happens if students correct their mistake and go on to solve the problem correctly.” But this is not the case. In fact, Moser’s study shows us that we don’t even have to be aware we have made a mistake for brain sparks to occur.

When teachers ask me how this can be possible, I tell them that the best thinking we have on this now is that the brain sparks and grows when we make a mistake, even if we are not aware of it, because it is a time of struggle; the brain is challenged and the challenge results in growth.

Indeed — this does sound really, really surprising! So, applied to math, it sounds like if you solve an equation incorrectly you learn from that experience (brain sparks?) in a way that you wouldn’t if you had solved it correctly. The mistake you made causes struggle — even if it’s not a struggle that you’re aware of. You might not feel as if you’re struggling, but your brain is on account of the mistake.

The citation of Moser is very clear, so, ok, let’s go upstream and check out Moser. Though a lot of research is behind paywalls, a lot of it isn’t and a quick Google Scholar search gives us a copy of the paper, here.

The study was an fMRI (EEG, see below. -MP) study. Here’s my understanding of the paper. The researchers wanted to know, on a neurological level, what’s different about how people with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset react to mistakes. So they gave everybody a test, to figure out if they had a fixed or a growth mindset. Then they hooked subjects up to fMRI EEG machines. While in the machines, participants worked on a task that yields a lot of mistakes. Researchers recorded their neural activity and then analyzed it, to see if there was a meaningful difference between the fixed and growth mindset groups, after making errors.

Spoilers: they found a difference.

Also: the whole paper is premised on people being aware of the errors that they made. This is not a subtle point, buried in analysis — the paper mentions this like nine times, including towards the end where they write, “one reason why a growth mind-set leads to an increased likelihood of learning from mistakes is enhanced on-line error awareness.”

This is so clearly different than what the YouCubed site says that I’m starting to doubt myself. The paper seems to be entirely about what happens when you realize you’ve made a mistake. Yet it’s cited as supporting the notion that you learn (“brain grows”) from mistakes, even if you aren’t aware of them.

Is there something that I’m missing here?

III. 

This doesn’t seem to me like an isolated issue with YouCubed.

A while ago Yana Weinstein and I made a document together trying to collect errors in YouCubed materials, explain why, and suggest improvements. I don’t have much else to say about that, except that if you’re interested you might check it out here.

IV.

What strikes me about YouCubed is that the errors just seem so unnecessary. The message is a familiar one, and I’m OK with a lot of it: don’t obsess over speed, think about mindset, don’t be afraid of mistakes. But there’s this sloppy science that gets duct taped on to the message. What purpose does that serve?

There’s also the question of why so few people in the math education community talk about this. I mean, it’s not like we lack the critical capacity. Every so often I see people in math education whip out their skeptical tools to tear apart a piece of research. Why not with YouCubed?

I don’t want to be cynical, but I want to be truthful. The first reason, I think, is because the message of YouCubed (besides the science) is widely admired. A lot of teachers love it, and nobody wants to ruin a fun time.

But I don’t think we have to worry about that. We can talk about the science of YouCubed in a way that doesn’t entangle the rest of the YouCubed message.

The second reason is, I think, that YouCubed and Jo Boaler’s popularity makes it difficult for the most visible people in math education to seem critical — no one wants to turn on one of their own. Especially since Boaler has often been subject to unreasonable attacks in the past — nobody wants to be unfair, cruel or sexist to her.

I’m actually very sympathetic to that. But this is also why it’s important for people who aren’t part of the research or PD world to have platforms to discuss ideas. We don’t have the reputation or the connections to lose, and so we can take a closer look and ask, wait, does that really make sense?

Corrections:

Actual neuroscientist Daniel Ansari points out that I don’t know the difference between an EEG and an fMRI, which is true.

 

NCTM Journals: Be Interesting, Not Useful

My department subscribes to Math Horizons, a journal “intended primarily for undergraduates interested in mathematics.” I really like it. I recently found an old issue around school, and was reminded how much fun it can be. Here are opening lines, pulled from articles in the issue:

  • “The year 2014 is an especially good time to tell this tale of disguise, distance, disagreements, and diagonals.”
  • “What made you decide to be a math major?”
  • “Being in charge of a math club can be exhausting.”
  • “Time to end it all, Ellen thought.”
  • “More than 65 years ago, William Fitch Cheney Jr. conceived one of the greatest mathematical card tricks.”
  • “What’s your favorite number?”
  • “I grew up around decks of cards.”

Following these openers, one can read interviews with mathematicians, longer pieces about the history of math, book reviews, mathematical exposition, and even fiction.

After rereading Math Horizons, I went searching around my apartment for an issue of an NCTM journal. I’ve subscribed to each of the three journals since first becoming a member, always hoping that the other journal would interest me more. I finally found the latest issue of Teaching Children Mathematics smooshed in with a pile of other magazines.

Here are first sentences pulled from the September issue of TCM:

  • “When you think of ‘modeling’ in the mathematics classroom, what comes to mind? With the inclusion of Model with mathematics as one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), the Common Core (CCSSI 2010) puts forth a vision of modeling in the mathematics classroom that moves beyond using concrete materials or other visual representations to give meaning to mathematics.”
  • “We recently conducted a randomized controlled trial that showed a significant impact of teachers’ lesson study, supported by mathematical resources, on both teachers’ and students’ understanding of fractions (Gersten et al. 2014; Lewis and Perry 2017).”

These are long. At risk of losing my own readers, I’ll include one last, even longer opening line:

  • “I am always in pursuit of resources that will add to my knowledge as described in Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All (NCTM 2014), which posits how crucial it is for math educators to continue to “recognize that their own learning is never finished and continually seek to improve and enhance their mathematical knowledge for teaching, their knowledge of mathematical pedagogy, and their knowledge of students and learners of mathematics. (p. 99)”

In response to my frequent kvetching about the journals, an NCTM board member emailed me. He asked, “What would you like to see in the journal?”

Fair enough! I would like NCTM to publish interesting articles.

Nobody sets out to publish boring articles, of course. But I have reason to think that “is this interesting?” is not being asked nearly enough at the NCTM journals right now.

For instance: I recently completed a twenty-two question survey about the NCTM journals. Four of the questions asked me about what I found useful. What sort of articles do I find the most useful? The least? Which departments are useful or not to me?

To be fair, one question asked, “Would you be interested in reading articles about…? (check all that apply).” That makes a four-parts usefulness to one-part interestingness ratio, which sounds about right for what NCTM is currently putting out. Invert the ratio, and I don’t think the above quotes make the cut any longer.

The other thing about interest vs. usefulness is something Henri Picciotto calls “the seemingly obligatory genuflection at NCTM’s sacred texts, most recently Principles to Action.” He means the way so many of the pieces published include the line “…as demanded by the Standards for Mathematical Practice,” or “…as detailed in Principles to Actions.” And, in fact, all three editorial teams officially require articles to show consistency with Principles to Actions:

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It’s simply hard to tell a good, interesting story about teaching while also projecting your adherence to a set of teaching standards. As a writer, you start losing options. One of the sturdiest formats I’ve found for writing about teaching is narrating learning. You develop some question, and then you take the reader along in your attempt to answer it. It is immeasurably harder to do this if in the very first sentence you announce that we already know how best to teach.

Each of those juicy opening lines from Math Horizons helps generate space to tell a story — about a trick, about a career, about a number. In turn, each of the NCTM openers eliminates space that might otherwise be occupied by a story.

An NCTM journal that aimed to be mostly interesting — four-parts to one, let’s say — could therefore change in these three ways:

  1. Publish crisp, engaging writing that tries to capture attention.
  2. Discourage writers from trying to adhere to standards; publish writing that disagrees with NCTM policy and teaching documents.
  3. Seek articles from the range of reader interests: math, math history, classroom dilemmas, policy debates, interviews, and so on, and so on. Even research, but for heaven’s sake keep it interesting!

This won’t be an easy change to make. I know it will be difficult to find writers willing to veer from what NCTM has published in the past. A word of advice on the editorial process, then: don’t seek submissions, seek writers. Find people that you’d like to write, and then ask them to pitch ideas. When one strikes an editor’s eye as especially interesting, help the writer develop it. Ask for snippets, early thoughts, rough drafts, and help craft the pieces into something that you expect to capture reader interest.

And all of this is worth it, because courting interest is a matter of respect. A piece that doesn’t attempt to capture attention (like a textbook) projects the opposite message: you really ought to read this. And, after all, isn’t that the main message of NCTM to teachers? That you really ought to teach like this, because we have the standards, the experts, the research and the know-how to train and educate you. Sure, this may be a slog to read, but aren’t you a professional? And you’ll read what you need to for your professional development.

Of course, like the speaker who comes in with gimmicks and cheap jokes, writing can miss the mark the other way. Bad writing can suggest a lack of seriousness.

But when done well, engaging writing can project trust and respect to the reader. We know you’re busy and discerning, it says, and that you have the intelligence to decide how to think and what to think about. You and us both. But, how about this?

So, stop trying to be so useful, NCTM! Relax, and try to be interesting instead.