Dan Meyer part 2

To see the video in question, drop back here.

Meyer is a high school math teacher, and I believe at the time of this talk he had been teaching for 6 years.

Meyer suggests that the real problems besetting high school mathematics education is the lack of real-world sensibility in the work. He figures that questions where all of the relevant information is provided, or where the abstractions are beyond everyday experience are alienating for students. His solution is use digital technology to create problems that can be modeled in the classroom, and that will provide meaningful experiences for his students.

I can go along with this to a point. The first fact that Meyer avoids is that mathematics requires basic skills and that these skills require practice. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t fun for everybody. But without mastery of basic technique, math becomes significantly more difficult than it needs to be.

Second, the purpose of stereotyped problems is that they help students  learn general procedures.

pool problem

In this case we have a type of problem that is difficult for most students the first time they see one, but becomes easier with only a little repetition. OK for some students, once is enough; for others, 10 times or more might be necessary.

(For those who forget such things, the first hose fills 1/12 pools per hour and the second fills 1/10 pools per hour. Add them and you’ll know how many pools per hour they fill together. I’ll leave the rest to you.)

So now we have a matter for teacher choice. Some will teach only the textbook stereotypical problems. Some will teach stereotypes first, then maybe do a “real world” problem with incomplete and imperfect data. Others may start with the real world to motivate the development of technique necessary to solve the real world problem.

Meyers suggests skipping the stereotypical problems and jumping into the real world and staying there. If this is really what he does (and I doubt it) then I have a hard time believing that it’s successful.

Real world problems are interesting in lots of ways, but they are time consuming. The business of learning the technique has to take place somewhere.

Practice is important; but it isn’t everything. Real world engagement is important; but it isn’t everything either. What we require is balance. But how to balance?

The short answer is that there is no short answer. Teachers are professionals for a reason. Judgments have to be made about the students in the room before us. The reality is that not every student is the same as the others. Not every class or community or teacher is the same as the others. Often I will have two classes for the same course during the same term and find myself teaching the classes very differently from one another.

One size fits all solutions make for great TED talks. But they make for pretty sketchy classroom practice.


2 thoughts on “Dan Meyer part 2

  1. I agree with you, John, that there is a certain slickness to Meyer’s presentation, but I think overall you are being too hard on him.

    Certainly, all of us as math/science teachers have faced the question of balancing “real-world” questions with teaching basic computations and/or basic techniques.

    But I think he is emphasizing a more important point about teaching in general: that it is much more effective for a teacher to first take the time to create a need in the student that the student feels compelled to satisfy.

    Too many teachers feel that that need is created by the grading/sorting system alone. It may be for some students, but not for many others. I don’t see the question so much as pushing “real world” questions, but presenting compelling, engaging questions, real world or not. An interesting puzzle can engage minds just as well as other kinds of questions.

    It’s about story telling. I have a story to tell. Would you like to hear it? Would you like to create it with me? Would you like to figure out the ending?

    Teachers need to be tempters, seducers. I think this is what Meyer is getting at.

    Now, I don’t think that’s the only model of successful teaching–I believe good teaching comes in many shapes and flavors, but it’s a very important successful model.

    As a performer, it resonates in particular with me. When I had figured out essentially what Meyer had figured out, I became a much better teacher. If you want students to answer questions, they have to be questions they think are worth answering. There’s a lot of subtlety there. Sometimes the teacher’s job is to convince the students that these are indeed interesting questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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