Real World Math (Dan Meyer and stuff)

I spent a really invigorating and exciting day at EdcampNYC on Saturday, surrounded by passionate, motivated, active educators. I just want to thank everyone who came, especially the attendees at my session, Student Choice in the Classroom.

The sessions were posted by people who could facilitate, but not necessarily in response to attendee interest, and some were left underwhelmed by the offerings.  If I were designing EdcampBK, for instance, I would include a way for session requests – probably a quick and dirty version of class planning at PSCS.

I just wanted to grab these underwhelmed adults and say, “see how boring stuff is when it isn’t what you want?  That’s how our students feel everyday!”

* * *

At the end of our student choice session, I had a conversation with a teacher about her daughter, who was very interested in becoming a math teacher. The daughter spent lots of time in college preparing for this, but she decided to enter the business world instead, and come to teaching later in life.

“If I’m going to tell these kids about all of the real world applications of math in the business world, and all of the life and career paths that include math, I’d better have some experience with it first,” said the daughter.

Math is so COOL! Right?

First of all, if she just wants the money, I get it. No blame. No shame. I’ve seriously considered selling out lots of times, especially with student loans rocking my monthly budget. On the other hand, she brings up a good point. You don’t even need to look at a textbook like this to know that questions of “real world applicability” are always being asked. In the face of “when am I ever going to use this?” many teachers see winning over students and convincing them of relevance as hugely important for gaining their buy-in.

They’ve got that right!  Personal attachment and investment are what drive personal growth, but this is a very artificial look at math in the real world. Let alone that shade of orange and the hodge podge cover full of unrelated stuff, I suspect no one actually sees the world this way.  Ugh.

* * *

Here’s a better vision of real world math.

Dan Meyer is a former teacher, now doctoral fellow at Stanford working on curriculum design. You can check out his TED talk, but I’ll summarize. Dan’s trying to recontextualize mathematics by using videos and photos of REAL scenarios – the kind you can actually see.

Here’s a classic problem, revamped and improved.

You show that, and then ask the students what they’re wondering. “Does it go in?” perhaps. You can read all about Dan’s “three acts of a mathematical story” here, but act one should grab hold of the audience with something truly compelling. I’m all about that, for sure, but let me be critical.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Dan is close to merely repackaging the same old product in a more exciting way. I applaud his work and effort, but this is still pretty dull. Dan’s stuff is distinct from that textbook cover in two ways; It’s authentic, and it’s actually compelling (though not always and not for everyone). Furthermore, lots of teachers simply must teach this stuff, by law, so I’m extremely happy that he’s helping them do that, but the “math makeover” we need is about much more than repackaging.

It’s about the mathematical process (Dan gets this), and it’s about student interest and their questions. I get the sense that Dan only kind of gets this one, because the videos speak so directly towards one or perhaps a few very specific questions.  I try, instead, to bring students to mathematically rich and accessible environments, in which an abundance of questions can be pursued along various routes. This helps students develop the mathematical instincts already within them, on whatever terms they can negotiate.

* * *

But here’s what rocks about Dan Meyer and what I think “real world math” really is.

Dan is a very passionate mathematician, and he is sharing compelling math, directly from his own experience.  Seeing math in the world is something he actually does, and to share that with students is to help them do it themselves. If my kid were in his class (not that I have one), I would be thrilled that he got to learn from a passionate and empowered math nerd.

That’s what’s real about math in this world.  There are real human beings, called “mathematicians,” that spend a considerable portion of their time engaged in mathematical thought – asking questions, answering them, revising, explaining, sharing, tinkering, analyzing, wondering, dreaming, playing, failing, succeeding, and on and on.  This is what I want to share with students. Math is something that people do, including me, and it is something that they can do as well.

This is what I want to tell that daughter. You don’t have to go into business to understand real math. Simply immerse yourself in a mathematical life, be a mathematician (in your own way), and you will have plenty to share. The sad fact is that school-math discourages this notion by implying to students that math is math class (or for geniuses), particularly because so many so-called “real world applications” are wholly artificial and pseudocontextualized.  Furthermore, school tells us we need teachers, texts, and problem sets to do math, when this is far from the truth.

Real world math is simply mathematical thinking. It’s personal, it’s real, and it can happen to all of us.

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14 responses to “Real World Math (Dan Meyer and stuff)

  1. “Sometimes I get the feeling that Dan is close to merely repackaging the same old product in a more exciting way.”

    If an object provokes a student to wonder a question that can be resolved with mathematical analysis, what do I care where the object came from?

    • What excites a student and gets them really doing math is good in my book. I’m certainly not trying to say only new math (whatever that is) is good math. Some of the best stuff is ancient.

      When I say “same old product” I’m referring to handed down standards and requirements, mostly indifferent to student interest. Inside of the current system of overly prescriptive curriculum and standardization, you have made positive improvements to the way we teach students the same old stuff. I would argue, this is not enough.

      Thanks for your hard work as well as your comment.

  2. Dan sent me this way as I have busted on him along very similar lines. For example here and in the follow up here. (This is to the man’s credit, by the way…gotta love someone who is interested in critical examination of all ideas, their own included.)

    So now I’ll push back a bit on you. You write:

    I try, instead, to bring students to mathematically rich and accessible environments, in which an abundance of questions can be pursued along various routes. This helps students develop the mathematical instincts already within them, on whatever terms they can negotiate.

    That sounds great. How do you pull together those various routes so that the class ends up learning some mathematics (as distinct from having solved a problem)? That is, how do you (and by extension we make those routes to somewhere?)

  3. Firstly, despite all my talk, I don’t spend all of my class time inviting student requests and following individual student interest. My school is surprisingly traditional, and I do teach courses in the traditional sense. Nonetheless, I try to connect these routes by having students communicate directly with each other, sharing insights, questioning each other, and so on, loosening my control on the class trajectory.

    If I have a more specific aim in mind I work to take in all of my students thoughts, speak to commonality, and provide valuable narration. Most importantly, whenever I sense in the room a common urge to follow some line of thought, whether it’s standard or not, mine or their own, I am happy to roll with it and simply be a resource.

    I’m sure that this is a better way to build memorable math experiences and personal insight than working students through a standardized K-12 progression, no matter how careful the planning.

  4. Choice. I just read Seth Godin’s new release, We Are All Weird. You’d probably really enjoy it.
    He says this, “When we give people choice, we make them richer.” (p. 25)
    We as teachers can make our students rich, for free!

    • Very true, and in some sense the overdone federal and state standards are taxing this potential wealth!

      I read Seth’s blog everyday, but I haven’t read any of his books. I really must get after it.

  5. Despite the gaudy cover, the CME textbooks are a superb resource. I don’t work at a textbook-oriented school but I wouldn’t mind a class set of those. Incidentally when you look inside you’ll see some good mathematics.

    • Kate Nowak has said really good things about those books, and I would love to get my hands on some. Good texts with relentlessly good problems are REALLY hard to find. We have a poster like this in our office at work, and it just makes me laugh. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Hey Paul, I love the blog, this is some good stuff. I feel like I am buried in educational and math resources after that awesome EdCamp so I haven’t even taken the time to really figure out twitter yet (I am sure I will soon). Nonetheless, I am pleased for find that the educational rabbit whole goes deeper than I ever dreamed of and I will definitely continue to follow your fu and informative postings. I do have one question for you though. If you know that kids learn more from natural inquiry and free choice to explore, why do you teach in the traditional way to your older students?

    • Hey Devin- Great to hear from you again! And yes indeed, the world is sooooo big, and filled with sooooo much good stuff! (so why are kids bored by school?)

      As for your question, even in my middle school class, I spend a good deal of time presenting and facilitating fairly standard material. Much more so in the high school, and this is for two reasons:

      1) My school still has pretty traditional “academic” standards and expects that through our work, students will be prepared (albeit in different ways) for college expectations and the SAT, for example.
      2) Frankly, I don’t know how to do this very well for my high schoolers. They have some pretty well established ideas about how math class goes, particularly if they are not terribly attached to the subject, and I’m not always able to quickly and successfully convert the classroom to culture to a more exploratory place. Trust me, I’m definitely working on it.

      If I were starting a school fresh, I would want the high school program to allow for a full battery of exploratory math courses.

  7. Pingback: Facebooking with students | Lost In Recursion

  8. Pingback: Facebooking with students « Cooperative Catalyst

  9. PLEASE GET ON FAST MATH

  10. Pingback: Links for Learning October 26, 2011 | scienceformath

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