Pumphrey's Math

Patterns, everywhere

What I learned from Dan Meyer

Yesterday I realized, many of my students are currently motivated by the threat of:

  • Getting a bad grade
  • Not getting into college
  • Getting yelled at by parents.

This is not good. In my mathematics classroom I would like my students to be motivated by a need for math, a hunger for math. I want them in a position where they are begging me to give them the mathematical tools they need to solve problems. Yesterday, I came a little closer to understanding how to get to this point by attending a conference given by the inspirational educator, Dan Meyer.

He has pioneered what are known as the 3acts lessons where students are presented with a photo or a video that inspire questions leading to a multilateral problem solving environment. I’m not going to go into detail here; I just wanted to share one or two thoughts from the day.

There is a common theme throughout his videos and that is the word ‘per’. How does one thing change with another? Miles per hour, Mass per Volume, hot dogs per minute. This is the heart of mathematics and something we all meet every day. Present a problem with changing variables (without just giving them what they are looking for) and you are presenting them with a problem that will need mathematical modeling to solve.

The difference is, whereas in textbooks, all the information is given to you at the start, in Dan’s lessons, hardly anything comes from the teacher. A nugget of information here and there to aid the process and to give something for the students to use, but mainly it is the students that have to identify variables, come up with the process in order to solve the problem (that they came up with) and hence make conclusions, with no mention of standards at all. What an amazing process!

The whole thing is a great validator also. With a lot of space for making predictions and coming up with ideas, the glory is not given to ‘the clever one’ but to those who make the effort of contributing. Every student has intuition.

Finally, I learned that Dan Meyer is human. I’ve been to conferences before where you leave feeling bad if you are not producing every lesson based around super rich tasks with resources that take hours of pain staking work to produce. Dan agreed that sometimes lectures are needed to fill in the gaps, that time needs to be spent preparing students for specific standardized assessments and that teachers often have little time with which to work. This was refreshing.

What was inspirational about yesterday was that this was not a plan to change everything about the way I teach. It was about elegant strategies to introduce the need for and the process of mathematical modeling; to create the hunger for the mathematics so that students then want to know how to e.g. divide rational expressions.

Good math is like a good movie; you know the point throughout the whole thing.

I’m really excited to give these lessons a try.

The three acts lessons mapped with common core standards can be found here.

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Why I love Tarsia

Apparently it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything you put your mind to, although not everyone agrees. A great pianist, however talented, does not become a virtuoso overnight. What is clear is that to become proficient in mathematics, yes, we need rich tasks and activities to build connections but sometimes you just need to ‘practice the scales.’ Many lessons out there are full of worksheets and textbooks where students can practice the same idea over and over again to their hearts content. The trouble is, this can be so boring for the individual and really demotivating for learning.

I want my mathematics classroom to be a place where students can get the practice they need but not get bored. That is why I love Formulator Tarsia.

Endless questions are boring, but put those questions in the context of group-work (possibly including competition) and suddenly it becomes a project where the task is to build a shape and the students find they are learning by accident. This is the best type of learning.

A download of this crucial program can be found here.

Pre-made files can be found here

I recently made a Tarsia activity for finding common denominators of rational expressions; this can be found here (right click and ‘Save Link As’).