Monthly Archives: October 2013

Exploring MTBoS: Mission #2

I like blogging. I have mixed feelings about Twitter.

With blogging, I am free to talk. I can say a lot or a little, though I mostly say a lot. With Twitter, I feel like I’m writing snippets of thought without much context. Some people love the challenge of limiting their messages to 140 characters. Some think that this forces us to get to the essence of our message and cut out all the bullshit.

It generally frustrates me because I feel like I’m not being understood or I’m just not speaking clearly. But like it or not, I still read my feed every day and tweet to various folks. I may not love everything about Twitter, but I find it valuable enough.

So what don’t I like? In addition to the character limit, there are a few other things that get under my skin. The first is the endless platitudes and affirmations. They drive me nuts. If they inspire your or make you feel better during a tough spot in your day, then I’m happy for you. They don’t do that for me. I wrote about this after my very first Twitter chat. I think part of the problem is that because of the character limit, we’re left with hollow messages filling up our feeds day in and day out. The solution is that I should probably weed my list of who I follow. I need to start removing folks who add noise, not content.

My other problem is attitude. This is another issue I wrote about previously, here and here. I can’t stand the attitude among some educators that all teachers should be in a Twitter PLN, and the implication that teachers who aren’t “connected” 24/7 are somehow terrible, uncaring teachers. Look, some people love teaching so much that they like to think and talk about it all the time. “Hi, my name is Brian, and I’m an eduholic.” It works for me, but I don’t begrudge those that want a life away from their classrooms. Heck, I even want time away sometimes, and I’m not going to feel guilty about that.

The thing is, neither of these issues really apply to #MTBoS. I’ve never felt like I’m having to read crap. Instead there are always lots of interesting discussions going on about teaching, students, and math. Just within the past 24 hours I talked about strategies for getting students to be better estimators, the reasons people leave teaching, and the need to be explicit in our meanings of terms like direct instruction. Those are extremely satisfying interactions, and it’s because of my connections through #MTBoS that I had them. If it weren’t for the folks I’ve connected with in #MTBoS, I probably would have ditched Twitter completely last winter. Thankfully that isn’t the case, and I appreciate this group more and more every day.

Life is Not a Game


Not a new term at all, but it is one I see popping up on my Twitter feed a lot lately. So many folks seem so excited about it, but for me, it makes my gut clench every time I read it.

Let me be blunt: I don’t think we should be making educational activities into games.

For me it comes down to an issue of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation: Why do you do the activities you do?

Turning an activity into a game with points, levels, badges, etc. fundamentally changes the reason people do the activity. There has already been much written about the negative impacts of reading incentive programs such as Book It! and Accelerated Reader, which are essentially reading games. In the case of Book It!, students read so many books, so many pages, or so many minutes, and eventually they “win” a gift certificate for a personal pan pizza. In the Accelerated Reader program, students read books, take short quizzes, and earn points. Kids involved in these programs read, some even astound their teachers by reading more than normal, but when you go back to the question, “Why do you do the activities you do?” the answer isn’t that encouraging. These kids are reading to get free pizza or more points, not because they love books. Sure, in the short term they may read more than they did previously, but the long term effect is that these students tend to read for pleasure less than students who never took part in these types of incentive programs in the first place. If you’re interested, here’s a passage from Alfie Kohn on reading incentive programs that elaborates more on what I just said.

Gamifying the classroom essentially adds yet another layer of extrinsic motivation on top of what already exists in a classroom – grades and parents (the desire to please). It’s a step in the wrong direction. Sure, fostering a love of learning for its own sake is not a cake walk, but that doesn’t mean we should instead be putting our energy towards making learning “fun” through points and prizes. You might feel like a rock star because your “gamified” class is super engaged and having a good time, but take a few moments to consider your students when they are no longer with you. Consider the negative impact it might have down the line when those students are off making their own decisions about what subjects/activities to pursue. What if they end up avoiding those subjects they rocked with you because they don’t find them inherently (read: intrinsically) interesting? Doesn’t it end up feeling like a hollow victory?

That’s not to say that we should never play a game in class. At times it might actually be part of the content. Perhaps you want to help students understand immigration so you develop a game with rules that are meant to illustrate the ideas you want students to discuss related to the experiences of immigration to this country. (I’m probably not describing it well. It’s an activity I really liked in the Social Studies Alive! curriculum.) Or maybe you want students to practice identifying points on a coordinate plane so you have them play a modified version of Battleship. Other times the game may come after the content has been taught, such as review games. By that point you’ve already fostered what interest you’re going to foster in the material. The game is just a way for students to demonstrate how much they’ve learned and for you to check for understanding.

I know one of the arguments I’ve read is, “But students play games all the time when they’re not at school. They persevere through adversity in those games. We must tap that in the classroom.” I disagree. Look elsewhere. Put your energy into finding ways to make classroom activities interesting for their own sake. It may be hard work, but I believe the long term pay off is a much greater reward than any number of points, badges, or levels completed in your class.

Texas-Sized Education Spending

I came across some disturbing information this week.

The state of Texas (where I live) ranks somewhere between 42nd and 48th in the nation for spending per pupil. To give some perspective, Texas spent $8,671per pupil in 2011. On the other hand, New York, the top spender in the nation, spent $19,076 per pupil.

Okay, Texas doesn’t spend a lot. Does it need to? Well it turns out we’re third LOWEST when it comes to the percent of the adult population with a high school diploma. Hmm, that’s a bit concerning.

Oh, but we are third HIGHEST in over all education spending at $52.5 billion. Say what? How can that be? Oh, because Texas educates roughly 10% of the ENTIRE public school population.

So not only are we spending one of the smallest amounts per student, but the impact is affecting a significant chunk of our nation’s children.

Here’s hoping the current case going through the courts with regards to Texas’ public school financing forces our legislators to make some serious changes.

To make matters worse, many teachers in Texas would like to quit, about 46.7% of them! They don’t feel like they can however, because many are their family’s breadwinner. However, they aren’t earning enough money. In fact 40% of teachers surveyed have a second job during the school year to make ends meet. Not surprisingly this number goes up to 56% in the summers. They admit they might be more prepared for their classes if they didn’t have to work a second job, but they can’t afford not to.

Show Me The Money: The Cost of Creating Digital Curriculums

So today Dan Meyer posted an interesting piece about digital textbooks. He asked if the current batch of digital textbooks is any different than their print counterparts. And if they are different, are they different enough? The long and short of it is that he doesn’t believe they are different enough yet and he encourages teachers and others to press educational publishers to start making products that leverage what networked devices have to offer.

As someone who has been designing digital math curriculum for over four years now, I decided to respond as a voice (not the voice) of someone in the industry. I don’t normally talk about my work online. I’m not exactly sure why. I guess because I try to represent myself online, someone who taught for 8 years and loves working with kids, and when I talk about work I feel like it sounds like I’m representing the company I work for. The last thing I want is for people to think I’m trying to sell them something! Anyway, by the time I was done responding, I realized I’d basically written a blog post response to Dan, so I decided to bring those thoughts over here for safe keeping.

Here are my thoughts on creating digital textbooks/curriculums that are different enough (or not):

How much money do you think it would cost to create the full-featured digital textbook/curriculum you are describing?

I don’t know a precise figure myself, but I’ve been designing digital math curriculum for over four years now, and I can tell you that the digital teaching platform created by my company (“my” as in the company I work for, not that it’s my company) was extremely expensive. Even more expensive was rebuilding it from scratch to adapt to the world of Flash-free tablets that didn’t exist when the company first started.

The existence of our company, and subsequently our digital teaching platform and curriculum materials, was made possible by the substantial wealth of one individual who wanted to make a difference in education. We were lucky to be able to exist at all and put out the materials that we did.

The US publishing companies, on the other hand, are existing companies that have had an identity as providers of print textbooks for many, many years now. They’re large and slow to change, like any bureaucracy. They’ve made moves into digital, but only so much as it has been worth the investment. There’s no reason to spend millions of dollars developing a product that not enough people are going to buy. (I say “There’s no reason” to refer to the business’ interests. Obviously educators can think of lots of good reasons, but do they make up enough of a customer base?) Going back to our company, even though we believed in our curriculum and software, we realized that we entered the market too early.

However, despite all that, I fully agree that teachers, parents, principals, and even students should be telling these companies what kinds of products they want. Otherwise you’re leaving it up to the companies to guess, and while they have market research teams, it doesn’t hurt to get explicit suggestions.

And yes, I am purposefully not saying any company or product names. I’m not here representing my company, nor am I trying to “get the word out” on any particular product. I just want to be the voice of someone in the industry who is trying to work towards what you are describing. My team is working on something different, possibly different enough, and yet we recognize there is still room for improvement.

I’d like to add that the term “digital” brings to mind different things for different people, which causes additional frustrations and concerns for companies planning to invest in creating digital products. Case in point, our company created a digital curriculum that was meant to embed technology into the workings of the classroom. The teacher still taught, but with the aid of the digital lessons. The students still explored math concepts and talked together, but it was facilitated through the technology. I loved it so much when I started working for the company that I was jealous that I wasn’t one of the teachers using it in a classroom! That’s what we meant by digital. Well, we meant a whole lot more, but I don’t want to go through the whole feature set.

Anyway, the term “digital” to other teachers did not necessarily mean the same thing and that caused problems. The most common misunderstanding is a digital product is automatically an adaptive practice program because that’s just what computers do. Practice has a place, and adaptivity has its benefits, but that’s not the product we were creating. We wanted technology to become part of the teacher’s interactions with the class and the students’ interactions with each other. We weren’t trying to get kids to work at their own pace by themselves. But some teachers were unhappy with our product because we didn’t do that. Being “digital” to them meant that the computer made all the instructional decisions for them and I guess gave them some free time to grade papers while the students were like little drones on the computer.

Other teachers couldn’t comprehend having to still teach. I kid you not, a teacher was baffled because she thought that having a digital curriculum meant that she could push play and go sit in the back of the room while the computer taught her kids. First of all, if she thought she’d still have a job if a computer could do it for her, she should have been scared, not excited at the prospect. Secondly, that was not our goal at all. That’s sort of the exact opposite of what we were going for. But again, preconceived notions got in the way of our design goals.

I say all this because I believe in what you’re proposing. I just wonder what percentage of our teacher population understands and believes it, too, because that’s the market. That’s who these companies need to buy this product if they invest the money in making it.

When faced with a product that did things along the lines of what you’re recommending, some teachers were just absolutely resistant because it did not fit their worldview of the role of technology in the classroom. Perhaps enough of a cultural shift has happened that this problem wouldn’t be as bad today than it was a couple of years ago, but I can see why some companies might be hesitant to develop a product like this that can backfire by not living up to expectations of what “digital” means to some unknown percentage of teachers.

And to end on a positive note, there are teachers who absolutely got it and love what we were trying to do. It’s extremely satisfying to hear a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 20 years tell you that she can’t imagine going back to the way she taught before. That felt good.

Exploring MTBoS: Mission #1

Starting this week I’m taking off on an 8-week adventure Exploring the MathTwitterBlogosphere (Explore MTBoS for short). I’ve been loosely connected to the MTBoS since last August when Dan Meyer encouraged educators to start blogging. Like many people, I went all in for a while, but then life got in the way, and I haven’t really maintained my blog so much lately. Thanks to the Explore MTBoS program, I will at least be blogging and making connections for the next eight weeks, and perhaps it will give me the motivation to keep it going after the eight weeks are up.

Mission #1

We had to choose from two prompts. I chose:

What is one thing that happens in your classroom that makes it distinctly yours? It can be something you do that is unique in your school…It can be something more amorphous…However you want to interpret the question! Whatever!

For whoever happens to read my blog for the next part of this mission, I’m actually out of the classroom currently. I was an elementary school teacher for 8 years, and for the past four years I’ve been a math curriculum developer. However, just because I’m out of the classroom doesn’t mean my memory has gone foggy or anything.

With regards to math education in particular, what made my classroom distinctly mine, even though I got the idea from a co-teacher, was Problem of the Day (or P.O.D. as my kids liked to call it). As the name implies, the students were presented a new problem at the beginning of every math class.

At the time, I had a specific goal for doing Problem of the Day. The high stakes test in Texas, the TAKS test (which is now the STAAR), had six objectives and the sixth objective was called “Mathematical Processes and Tools”. It was a doozy of an objective because it wasn’t really about any particular math concepts. Rather it was about asking students a variety of questions that required problem solving and reasoning. Supposedly having good teaching methods while teaching the core content was enough to prepare students for Objective 6, but after many years in the classroom I knew that my students could easily be thrown for a loop by those questions. So during Problem of the Day I often used Objective 6 questions from released TAKS tests.

(As an aside: Looking back, I’m not proud that I focused on doing this for test prep. I am not a fan of high stakes tests, but the reality at the time is that it was my responsibility to prepare my students and this is the method I chose to try. As it turns out, it worked out amazingly well, and I see now that I could use Problem of the Day, or a related structure, to actually enhance my general math teaching.)

So as I said, I presented a new problem every day. Our school used a problem solving structure called FQSR (Facts, Question, Solve, Reflect). My students would divide their paper into a grid and label each section F, Q, S, or R to represent their work in that section. The first thing they had to do after they read the problem was to write down whatever facts they felt would help them solve the problem. Then they had to write the question they were being asked. (This actually made for some great conversation and also gave me some wonderful insights into how students comprehended what they were reading.) Next, they had to solve the problem in whatever way made sense to them. Finally, they had to write a response (reflection) that explained why they did what they did and what their answer to the question was.

When they were done, they would bring it up to me to read over their work. I wouldn’t tell them if they were correct or incorrect. Rather, I would ask them questions or point out where I was confused while looking at their work. The student would go sit down and use my questioning to continue working on their solution. Sometimes they would start over, sometimes they would elaborate more in their reflection, whatever they felt they needed to do. If I got a line of students waiting to see me, it was their job to share their work with each other in line while I continued reviewing work. Sometimes students would come up and see me 3, 4, or even 5 times to continue getting feedback on their solution. All the while, I never verified whether their answer was correct.

After it seemed like most of the class was ready to continue, we moved to the presentation phase where students got up and shared their solution with the class. They stood up at the front and shared their work using our document camera. I stood in the back to make it clear that I wasn’t running the show. I let students ask the presenter questions to clarify. I would also ask questions to clarify. Usually we made it through 2-3 students before having a discussion about whether we could all agree on an answer. By this point students were generally in agreement (for good or ill), and I would finally give the answer.

When first starting P.O.D., I knew my students were going to be weak at showing their work and even weaker at writing their reflections. For the first few weeks, I would choose one of the students and I would model the solution and reflection sections based on their work. They would tell me what they did and I would talk about how I would show/write that on my paper. I did this for much longer than a teacher would normally feel comfortable, but I can tell you that it paid off big time. My students’ responses got better and better because they had worked with me to model what it means to write about math thinking. They understood the value of telling what nouns actually go with the quantities they were computing with, for example.

You’d think this would be a boring activity because I forced a structure on them day in and day out, but my kids loved it. Maybe it’s because of the classroom culture I fostered, maybe I had weird kids, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t the voice of authority. Sure, I would give feedback as they worked, but so did other students. Sure, I asked questions during someone’s presentation, but I was always in the back of the room, not in a place of control. Also, I didn’t ask as many questions as my students did. I was “with” them, not “above” them.

While my students learned a lot from doing P.O.D., it was a valuable experience for me as well. I learned that word problems can be much trickier than you’d think. Here are two examples. (I’m making up the wording, but the essence of the problems is the same.)

1. Matt baked 24 cookies. He ate 5 and his sister ate 6. How many cookies did they eat?

I kid you not, every year I’ve presented a problem with similar wording, my students invariably subtract to find the answer. Generally they do 24 – 5 – 6 to get 13. I’m sure you can guess why: Because cookies were eaten, and that just means the amount is going to go down. It just has to.

I LOVE talking about this problem with students during P.O.D.. (This actually isn’t an objective 6 TAKS question. I just snuck it in every year because I knew it would trip them up and lead to great discussion.) Even after talking about the problem with students, and finally getting a few of them to recognize their error in comprehending the question, I still have students after a good 15-20 minute discussion still unclear why the answer is 11. And I’m okay that not all of them get it by the end. Doing P.O.D. is about the process of learning to comprehend, reason through, and solve problems. I can take a loss here and there for the greater victory of developing strong problem solvers over time.

2. Jamal is going to the movies. He buys popcorn for $2.65 and a soda for $3.25. What information is needed to determine how much change Jamal received?

This is another problem that I love because it shows me very clearly that students can read words and completely ignore them. It also shows me that they make a lot of assumptions. Finally, it makes it clear why there is a step in FQSR where you identify the question – because it’s not always what you think it’s going to be! I was floored at how many of my students had temporary blindness when they got to “What information is needed to determine…” Once they got to “…how much change Jamal received?”, all of a sudden their sight returned and they started doing some computations with numbers. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how it didn’t occur to them that they had absolutely no idea how much money Jamal handed the cashier, but that did not phase a class of 22 fourth graders one bit. They happily presented me their solutions to the problem. It wasn’t until the class discussion that finally the idea was raised that a student wasn’t actually sure how much money Jamal had. I said that’s an interesting point and decided we should reread the problem together to see if we missed something. As we read “What information is needed to determine…” I stopped and asked my students what those words meant. Finally it dawned on them what they were being asked to do. It was a wonderful a-ha moment for them.

If you’re with me until now, thanks for taking the time to read all of this. While blog posts are encouraged to be on the concise side, I have lots to say, and saying it gets me excited and reinvigorates me.

Sure, in the end I did P.O.D. for test prep, and sure it turned out to be super effective with regards to my students’ scores on the objective 6 questions that year, but it turned out to be about so much more than that. It was about empowering students and helping them become the mathematical thinkers I wanted them to be all along. It gave me practice serving more as a coach and resource rather than as the voice of authority in my classroom, and it taught me a lot about how my students reasoned about solving problems. Now, if only I could have been on a TEAM of teachers that did roughly the same thing I wouldn’t have to be sharing it now as something I’m proud of that made my class distinctly mine.