Episode 162: Why Under-Preparing Is The Key To Engagement – An Interview With Po-Shen Loh

Jan 3, 2022 | Podcast | 0 comments



We speak with Po-Shen Loh from an American professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and the national coach of the United States’ International Math Olympiad team. Po-Shen shares how he believes – whether teaching in person or online – that we can never take the attention of the student for granted. So how do we craft engaging lessons that can keep the attention of our students when we’re up against TikTok, Instagram, and other modern day distractions? 

Stick around and dive into this conversation on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast with our guest, Po-Shen Loh.

You’ll Learn

  • How to craft engaging online learning experiences that compete with the likes of TikTok and Instagram
  • How leveraging techniques from improv classes can draw in your audience
  • How educators can make small changes to their lesson delivery to make students feel that they are a part of your lesson instead of just a spectator


Poshenloh.com [Po-Shen Loh’s Website]

Po-Shen Lo’s Zoom Chat Add-On 

Connect with @PoShenLoh on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn & YouTube

Explore Make Math Moments Problem Based Units

Join The Make Math Moments Academy

Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Po-Shen Loh: I'll give a big advice. If you take some improv comedy lessons, it just transforms the way that you teach. So after I did that, my classes changed. I used to prepare for class. So I used to prepare for class, meaning that today, I'm going to show you this, this, this. Here's how I'm going to do this problem. Here's how I'm going to do that problem. Since I'm prepared, I'll be able to teach the class. There will be no problems. I won't ever be worried that I got stuck, if that makes sense. Improv comedy teaches you how to just always be stuck and get your way out of it.

Jon Orr: We speak with Po-Shen Loh, an American professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also the national coach of the United States International Math Olympiad team. Po-Shen shares how he believes whether teaching in person or online that we can never take the attention of students for granted.

Kyle Pearce: Yes. So, Jon, the big question now people are wondering at home is how do we craft engaging lessons that can keep the attention of our students when we're up against TikTok, Instagram, and that huge list of other modern day distractions. Be sure to stick around and dive into this conversation on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast with our guest today, Po-Shen Lo. Let's go.
Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I'm Kyle Pierce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from makingmathmoments.com. And together...

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of the math moment makers worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity.

Jon Orr: Fuel sense making.

Kyle Pearce: And ignite those teacher moves. Jon, today, we have the opportunity to dive into a conversation with Po-Shen Loh who has got a really awesome math story, not only from his own experience growing up, which has kind of trickled into how he's teaching in post secondary.
Something I'm really loving about this conversation we're going to get into today is that there's so many parallels to the things you and I talk about each and every week, right?

Jon Orr: Yeah. It is interesting to see how actually we've come at it from two different ends of the... Almost like the K to post-secondary spectrum in the sense that we modified our teaching plan. We called it from our past episodes, the real flip classroom where we would take a problem and teach through a problem and have kids experience problem solving without you telling them how to do that.
We came at it from an end of constantly teaching students who hated math class, right? We always said there's got to be a better way to help engage these students because it's like they come in just beaten down by math in the previous years. How can we help them see that math is more powerful than that and they like it? How can we change that? We've had a lot of success from that. So we came at it from that perspective, whereas Po-Shen Loh from his own perspective, he's coming at it from like a math contest side of things where he's like, "I got to help kids learn how to problem solve, but we're coming at it from these really tough problems that we're diving into in almost like the extracurricular, the tough problem, the contest."
That's where he ended up coaching at the highest level you can for these problems. So we've come at it from two different sides of the spectrum in like you said, there's some really nice parallels here. So let's not waste any more time here talking about that. Let's hear Po-Shen's side and his story.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Here we go, my friends. Hey there, Po-Shen. Thanks for joining us here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. We are recording on December 27th. Jon, we're kind of cutting it close, because this episode is going to be coming out next week, I think.

Jon Orr: Yeah. We had an opening here. We're sliding Po-Shen in. So Po-Shen, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. How are you doing this evening?

Po-Shen Loh: Oh, I'm terrific. Thank you so much. I would say that on this particular day, talking about mathematics now, even in the middle of winter break is a refreshing thing to do.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff. Yes. We want to know a little bit more about you for our audience. Both Jon and I know of you and some of your work, but let everybody know where are you coming to us from and give us a little bit of your math journey. What has helped lead you to what you're doing these days?

Po-Shen Loh: Oh, I'm here from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That's because I'm a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University. My math journey though, has gone through a bunch of different twists primarily because of math competitions. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. And when I was young, I did math in school. But then at some point in middle school, I found math competitions, which were questions that you don't know how to do and you haven't been prepared how to do it. And I would say that that has completely colored the way that I look at math where even the way I teach it nowadays, it is all about... I think it's more important to help people learn how to solve a new problem that they've never seen before, as opposed to just practicing methods and following them. So you can do all the problems you have seen before.

Jon Orr: Totally. That actually falls just perfectly in line with what we have talked about so long here on the podcast about trying to teach perseverance, problem solving. One way to do that is to do what you just said. It's like you have to immerse kids into problems they don't know how to solve and then you work through them together. I'm wondering a little bit of background before we keep going here, Po-Shen.
I know that you had a math contest, which was a huge influence on you, but I'm wondering if you could give us a little backstory before that. I know that you said that it's a key aspect, but what would you say specifically got you there? And then how did that get you where you are now?

Po-Shen Loh: Well, when I was growing up, I did math in school and somehow I happened to know how to do a little bit more math than my classmates, just because of the fact that my mother would teach me additional mathematics at home. So just because of that, I had some extra and it just meant that when there were more arithmetic problems, I could do more arithmetic problems. But I would say that the skills that I had gotten from that, from that experience at home were primarily standard things.
So any textbook problem, I would be able to do textbook arithmetic problems. That's why it was so interesting when I landed in middle school and I suddenly saw some questions that involved algebra, but they looked different from all the algebra problems I'd ever done before. I remember, I thought I was good at math. And then suddenly how can it be that there are these questions that I can't do? And how can it be that my mom who taught me some of this stuff also can't do some of these?
I thought she was supposed to be super smart. And that's I started to find out. There's different kinds of questions in the world. Some are difficult because they're tedious. If you have 20-digit numbers multiplied together, I'm going to get it wrong. Okay? There are just so many little things, I'll make a mistake. But that's not because it's cognitively hard, it's just tedious. Then there are other questions you look at and you say, "I have no idea how to start this."
Then suddenly you look at it from another angle and, "Oh my gosh, there's a way just to see it this way." And it's trivial.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. You know what? That's so interesting because I must say I see a lot of similarities. Jon and I both had very, I would say similar experiences when we were growing up with mathematics. We did a lot of what it sounds like you were doing at home and in most classrooms where, hey, we were able to do some of the, I'm going to say tedious, not 20-digit by 20-digit tedious, but very procedural things.
We were pre-taught how to do a lot of these problems. And where the wheels offer us was actually later on. Not through competitions or through math challenges or things along those lines. But when the math actually got complex and we actually had to start understanding it and actually look at problems from different angles, that's where the wheels fell off for us.
So I see some alignment that all three of us landed in this place where we now value and respect the importance of not just procedurally memorizing everything. There's certain things that we need to learn and practice and do throughout the process building that fluency and that flexibility. But that's more around, I think more of the number sense piece. It's like the problem solving piece. That's where sometimes I feel like some of that more automaticity, we kind of suck that into problem solving where we want students to be able to automatically solve these problems as if they had seen them before.
So that alignment I think is so great. I'm wondering now, we ask a question to all of our guests. It's the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. We always ask our guests what math moment pops into your mind when you think back? And I'm curious, is it that math contest sort of experience, or do you have another memory? When you think of your math moment from when you were growing up and learning about mathematics, what was that to you and how did that influence who you are now as a math educator?

Po-Shen Loh: Yeah, so I have a few of them. So one of them would be when I was younger in middle school doing these math contests. And there was just a particular question, which I couldn't solve. It was actually a question I can describe. Suppose you have a circular table and you have it in the corner of a room. So it's actually touching the two walls. So you have to circle here, if that makes sense. And then apparently in this particular problem, there's this giant circular table. And then I'm doing top down, right? I'm looking top down. There's a circle here. There's the walls here. I'm Looking top down.
There's another little cabinet or something. Not cabinet. There's some rectangular thing. When you look from the top down, it's a rectangle. And that rectangle is squeezed into the corner. Again, you got the walls. You got this corner. It's very visual. This is a geometry problem. Right? You got this corner of walls. This is top down view.

Jon Orr: Everyone's visualizing it at home right now.

Po-Shen Loh: Oh yes, that's right. You can't see the video if you're listening. So I'll just describe it, right?

Jon Orr: That's okay.

Kyle Pearce: I think you've described it great.

Po-Shen Loh: Terrific. It's just like baseball. I don't know if that made sense, but if you listen to baseball, I'm trying to be the baseball commentator and finding out how hard that is. So you got this corner wall, right? You got this table. I'm looking top down, this table down here, and then there's some kind of like a bedside table, a big rectangular block, if that makes sense. And the rectangular block is squeezed into that corner, but it also happens to just touch the corner of that rectangular block. It just touches the edge of the circle.
You happen to know that the dimensions of this rectangular thing looking top down, I forgot what they are. Let's just say there are two numbers in the problem, those two numbers. And the question was, what's the radius of the circle? And when you look at this, it's actually not a standard problem at all.
I remember it as a question. I couldn't solve this. I was in the middle school. I remember that even after trying it a bunch of times, I couldn't solve it. But at some point I found out, "Oh, you can." And it used like... Oh wow, a screenshot. Are you drawing it? Amazing.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, I'm trying.

Jon Orr: Kyle's drawing it.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. For those watching on YouTube, we might as well see that the baseball commentator described it well. But keep going.

Po-Shen Loh: Yeah, exactly. So the point is that it turns out to be one of these problems where you just try to go at it straight. You don't see what to do. But then somehow you start introducing variables into a geometry problem. If you know what I mean, this is geometry and algebra at the same time, right? Oh, by the way, the table, as you're drawing it, the way that this should work... Oh, are you drawing the walls right now? Is that what you're drawing?

Kyle Pearce: Yes.

Po-Shen Loh: The walls. Okay, right. Because the table is going to be squeezing the corner. It's a really tiny... Not table. The rectangular blocky thing. It's just like a tiny thing in the corner and you just happen to know the dimensions of that tiny thing. Then the question is what's the radius of the circle? And it ends up being a problem where you have to use the pythagorean theorem in some nifty way. But I just remember this because it's a kind of a question where you have to blend multiple areas of math at the same time. Exactly. You just do it. That's it.
Actually when I looked at it at the beginning, I didn't even know if could do it because I've never seen anything like this before. Do you have enough information? And after a while, if you think about the problem as an adult, we can see that you have enough information because if you imagine Ikea and getting one of those like blockish things sticking into the corner, and then saying, "Now, let me just go find another round table." Don't know if Ikea makes those. Everything Ikea makes is rectangular.
But anyway, find some round table. There will be a particular round table that will just fit. So there is an answer, if that makes sense. What I'm trying to say is there is definitely an answer to this problem because you could imagine just doing it by sticking the block and moving bigger and bigger tables and at some point it's just right. But I just remember that question because it's an example of one of these problems that's not from the textbook.
In retrospect, it's not that hard. I mean, I'm sure all of us could work it out now, but for a middle school me, it was really interesting. And obviously, I still remember it now.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I can only imagine, or I don't even have to imagine. I know exactly what I would've done as a student. I would've said, "You never taught me how to do this." Right? And that's sort of that common response. It's like the more opportunities we give students to grapple and actually productively work through problems and to experience that dopamine hit you get when you, not even necessarily solving the entire thing, but to feel like you're making progress.
I think that's something. I see it even with my own children these days with video games sort of give them that dopamine. I feel it's like they're missing out from some of these other experiences. So we're big into Lego right now because that's our way to give them this opportunity to work through something and see it come to life.

Jon Orr: Po-Shen, I'm curious on that moment and how that has influenced what you're doing now. I know that you are the national coach for the USA International Mathematics Olympians team. I think you've been doing that, what, since 2014. I'm curious how your experience with that problem or problems like that when you were young influences what you do with that team now? I'm curious what that looks like.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. I'm always curious about this. When you got into education, was this just something you did right from the beginning or was it something that you worked your way towards? Because I know, again, speaking for Jon and I, we taught the way that we were taught and it would've been more like what you were experiencing pre these math competitions that you were in. And it took us a while. Was that something that, because of those experiences, did that set you up to come right out of the gate doing things maybe differently or did you maybe get sucked into the, I would say, the norm that is K through 12 or K through, we'll call it post-secondary education?

Po-Shen Loh: I think actually because I came in from this math competition angle, it actually has colored the way that I both learned and taught math for my entire career. And that's because I actually learned math by doing these crazy problems like the one I just showed you. You see, when I was doing these kinds of problems that were always a few steps ahead of my capability, I would end up having to invent my own ways to solve them at which point later when I went and learned those math classes in school, because I went to public school in medicine, Wisconsin. Eventually I'd see those topics again. And I would say, "Oh, yeah. I remember figuring that out really badly on my own because what's the chance that a kid could come up with the right way to do everything." You know what I mean?
But it's sort of like, as if you never saw a real car before and you made a whole bunch of stuff and I've got things on wheels that kind of go, but they fall apart after five minutes. Right? That's what I learned while I was doing this. But because I learned that way, I found out it's possible actually to learn a lot of math where the student is the one doing the discovering where actually the way I learned math was entirely different from the traditional that you were talking about.
Because of the fact that I was always doing these challenge problems, so by the time I went to the class in school, I had already been over that territory in a weird way. And then actually also when I was a high school student, I went back to help volunteer and coach the middle school team. So I was already explaining things in this way. When I was in college, I went to help to coach the high school students. And that's actually how I fell into this whole thing of becoming this national coach today is because I myself was on the national team for the United States in 1999.
Then I just stayed in the system always teaching the next generation back. Just the people about four years younger with this particular angle that I had picked up.

Jon Orr: How does the team look like now, maybe mid COVID? How does all that look like? Give us a run through for the listeners at home of what kind of the Olympiad teams does and what you do?

Po-Shen Loh: Oh, sure. So it's the United States International Math Olympiad team. It's organized by the Mathematical Association of America, which you may have heard of. It's a big nonprofit organization that has been promoting all of this mathematics for a hundred years. But what they do with me is that we find these students through some competitions, which actually, hopefully everyone will have their students registering. These are called the AMC, American Math Competitions. Therefore high school students and middle school students.
If you do well in these, you get picked into this team. But I should say the biggest difference, there's not a huge difference between COVID and before COVID because a lot of these students ended up learning a lot of things on their own anyway. The kind of math you have to do to be on this team is mostly extracurricular stuff that you pick up.
The biggest differences between the team today and the team when I was on it. When I was on it, even I could be on the team. We weren't very smart. So back then, there was no internet. You just were on the team if you were a guy who was interested and could come up with ideas. Today, you actually have to be pretty smart, to be honest.

Kyle Pearce: I bet. You think about as well like if you're interested in that work, in that learning, that the internet is an endless pit. It could be of despair, but it could also be of very good things as well, right? I always say the internet has exactly what you want if you know what you want to find. It's like it's very useless when you're just aimlessly searching around. Right?

Po-Shen Loh: I agree completely. I mean, I would say that the internet is full of people who are trying to steal your attention because it's worth dollars to them. So there's actually an active role from various companies and various distractions on the internet trying to grab you in. But if you know what you want, you can go so far and pick up all kinds of information. And that's why a lot of the work I do nowadays is to try to build that up.

Kyle Pearce: I love that. And that's a great segue. That comment really segues to something we're really curious about because we know that a lot of the work you do, and I'm sure you do in person learning as well, but you have a passion for online learning for virtual learning. We've heard that you talk about engagement. For Jon and I, just to give you a little backstory, Jon and I believe in our three-part framework we use in our K through 12 math classrooms are all about sparking curiosity and fueling sense making. Those are the two things we want to be doing.
We don't just want to get their attention. We don't want to just steal their attention and then make it gimmicky. We want to get their attention, much like your problem that you shared where it's like it sucks you in, in a little way. It's like you sort of spark that curiosity, but then you're helping them to fuel sense making around some learning idea. Something we really liked about the work that you're doing is how important you believe and know engagement is in order to do online learning in an effective way.
It's even been said that you've got some ideas on how you might even be able to make learning mathematics online, compete with social media like TikTok or Instagram or whatever is next that students are falling down that rabbit hole.
I think you articulated it really well where the internet is so helpful if you're on that track to do something meaningful. But if you're just flailing around, if you're just floating around and being distracted and letting these distractions take over your life, that could be really difficult especially if you've been in this online learning environment. So tell us a little bit more about what does engagement look like and sound like in an online math learning environment?

Po-Shen Loh: Oh, wow. So I've thought about this a lot because I guess for me, it's actually inspired by offline. So it's ironic even though what we're talking about is my work online. If you ask me, I would love to be in person right in front. I am that kind of-

Kyle Pearce: Nothing beats it. Right?

Po-Shen Loh: Right. So it's funny. Now, I'm going to tell you all about these other things about online, but I want to say it's all inspired by a guy who likes nothing better than to be right in front of people in the thick of things. And I can tell you more about the things I've done there. As a little preview, I spent last summer going and giving talks in 40 cities all throughout the United States in park shelters. Two months.
I was doing this because I wanted the in-person experience. I was going city to city to city groups of maybe 50 to a hundred people per city would come. So I did that to get my offline, like my in-person, but that's just making me think about the online, because this is all being thought of by a person who actually really is active on the in person. Right?
So what I see you can do in person that you cannot do easily online is in person somehow they have to be there. They have to be there. Presumably they have to be looking at you because there's nothing else to look at. That's what in person has the advantage of, so you have a captive audience. But now you see, if you just take that for granted, you don't have to do anything. They're actually still there.
So now with the online, the game becomes, how do you actually not take that for granted anymore? Given that they could easily have jumped off to somewhere else. This is inspired-

Kyle Pearce: And probably did.

Po-Shen Loh: Sorry?

Kyle Pearce: And probably did.

Po-Shen Loh: And probably did. So this is inspired by my experience teaching at Carnegie Melon University. See, that's a university. Now, the difference to me between teaching at a university and teaching K-12 is in the university, if the students can just bring their laptops and their phones. It's standard. By the way, if it's open, they're not taking notes.

Kyle Pearce: Right.

Po-Shen Loh: It's game over. Right? So what I mean is that many of us professors are used to teaching in classrooms. "Oh my gosh. All these people have their laptops open. They're not paying attention." And furthermore, a lot of times maybe the professors, we just think, "Well, we're here for the research anyway. Maybe it doesn't matter so much." But I care because I like teaching.
So then I would take it as a sport, as a game. I have colleagues at my university who are like this too. And the game is called, can we convince you to actually pay attention? If you see what I'm saying is that I don't... Even though although... I previously said, people, they're stuck. There's nothing else to do. That's true of K-12. That is not true of university.
So I was experimenting with this how to get people to pay attention. And that's how it came about with the first go. So one of the things that I try to do that works both offline like in person and online is, well, it's good to be somehow engaging. And that's why I care so much about even the quality of what it looks like, what it sounds like.
This is actually one reason why one of the latest things I've been doing, I was working with the people who helped to connect with you, Outlier.org, simply because they were producing cinematic quality classes. And when they asked me if I wanted to be involved, I said, "This sounded interesting."
So one of the things I was doing was trying to find ways to bring very high production quality and feel. But there was another thing I was trying to bring that you get mostly in person, which is inspired by improvisational comedy. So I had also been working on trying to get more people in the world interested in that.
At some point I worked with a PR agency to try to help make people more interested in that. The first thing they told me is, "You're not very interesting. You need to learn how to communicate better. Go take improv comedy classes." I said, "What's that?" So actually, if there's one takeaway I want to make, I don't know exactly what the different backgrounds of your listeners are, but any of them who are active in education, I'll give a big advice. If you take some improv comedy lessons, it just transforms the way that you teach.
So after I did that, my classes changed. I used to prepare for class. So I used to prepare for class, meaning that today, I'm going to show you this, this, this. Here's how I'm going to do this problem. Here's how I'm going to do that problem. Since I'm prepared, I'll be able to teach the class. There will be no problems. I won't ever be worried that I got stuck, if that makes sense.
Improv comedy teaches you how to just always be stuck and get your way out of it. It's actually analogous to what I was just talking about with the learning style of doing math problems that are beyond your reach. So then suddenly the way that I started teaching all of my math classes, for example, at my university, it just turned into me saying, "Hey, everyone. We're going to try to do this problem today. Any ideas? I'm not going to tell you how to do it. Give me ideas."
And if there's 40 people there, university classes are bigger, we'll figure it out by the hour. I'm sure of that. But then the game becomes, somebody starts giving ideas and I have to not only show you what is right, I need to show you what is wrong is wrong, if that makes sense.
This is another dimension that starts adding because sometimes when you're learning, you say, "Okay, I guess I could do it this way, but why not that other way?" The only way to find out is to stumble a lot. So this certainly made the engage... At engaging this to the kinds of teaching that I was doing. And if you're trying to do this on Zoom, which I was doing for much of the pandemic for my university, this actually helped to make people actually come to class instead of just watching the prerecording.

Jon Orr: Yeah. So what I'm hearing is that there's two big things that you used in class, in one being the improvisational comedy class. I think what you're saying is that helped you think on your feet. It helped you be dynamic. It helped you be, "Hey, I'm not just going to follow my script, which is kind of like when we became math teachers is that I wrote out everything I wanted to say, but we all eventually learned to put that away because it was more powerful to be a human in our classes and bring in what kids are thinking along the way.
And the other thing that you were saying was you were trying to be engaging. You wanted them to kind of be active. I think that was important. We talked about that before like that was your experience as a student kind of like getting into solving problems and then working through those strategies.
I'm wondering if we want to dig just a little bit deeper there. I guess maybe I might have missed it, but I'm wondering how did that translate into online learning? What were some of those elements that got them engaged? It was like, "Okay. We're going to solve this problem." For your experience, Po-Shen, was it the fact that it was like, we're just going to like solve this problem.
And the fact that that was completely different to these students experience in math class because they were always probably told, this is how you do this. This is how you do it and you take notes. The fact that you've immersed them in problem solving. Was that the engaging part for them or was there some other elements? Then how did that translate online?

Po-Shen Loh: Yeah, I think that the unpredictability of it and the feeling that you want to be part of it, were definitely things that made people want to come to class. Again, I'm saying this from the point of view of when we were all teaching online and in my university we recorded everything. So students have an option called don't come to class live. Actually many university students said that they preferred not to go to class live because they would just go and watch the recording at 2X speed.
I actually think a lot of K-12 students did the same thing. So the point was I was playing this game to myself of, "Okay. Now, the game is not called get you off the laptops, the game is called, will you actually come to my class?" Because otherwise it's kind of sad. There were people who were teaching and nobody came, or very few people came live.
And when the people came live, it was black empty screens. To me, that was one of the hardest things to do with the online teaching. And that's when it became, "All right, guys. The class is going to be made by you. If you come, you will be steering the class." So suddenly that was one way. So I was basically explaining. There was one way I was trying to do things which was just production quality. Very important. That's one way.
Another way is to say, "How do we make it so that the actual being here of all these people is something that you feel like you're a part of." So that's actually how I run this. And goodness knows with this new Omicron, some of these universities are closing for the first few weeks. So I'm actually prepared. I'm going to do this again online, possibly in another week or two.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. I love that. A lot of the pieces that are really resonating with me, you're saying it in a different way, but a lot of the elements, the idea of improv, immediately, what pops into my mind as we try to spark curiosity, we talk about withholding information, building anticipation like when we're solving problems, getting students into getting student voice out there. I hear these elements coming out through what you're saying. It's like, "You're building this classroom culture. You're being real. You're getting students to almost..." And the goal is, I think we all know that it's not going to happen for every student, but the goal is students to feel like they missed out on not being there. Right?
It's like, "I could have been there and I could have contributed my voice." It sounds like the way you're running the class is like, "You're not going to just be there talking." You're not going to be up at the board who is just going to get through those five things that you had on your list from back in the day, we'll call it. Jon and I used to do the same thing. And now it becomes much more about who's in the room.
I'm wondering if you see for those students who are attending, are you seeing how that's helping to differentiate for the students? Are you able to... I know for us, Jon and I feel like since we've sort of flipped the script on how we teach a little, we now feel like we're gaining all sorts of formative assessment information. Diagnostic information as well based on what they're saying initially but then also formatively as they're working through the problem.
It's almost like we can see where students are. We can notice a name where their thinking is and where I might need to facilitate during a consolidation of a lesson. How is that for you? How has this been a learning experience for you in how you... Through this process, are you now using this information in order to even, I guess, get better at using this process with your students?

Po-Shen Loh: Yes. So I actually feel, this is very important. This is basically about getting off the track yourself. Right? Basically what we're saying here is that if you just prepared something and you want to do that one thing, you have a track. If that track doesn't exactly match what the knowledge level is of the people that are watching, it's not going to work very well.
But the difficulty is how do you know whether you should get off the track or not? That's why sometimes you ask questions to say, "Oh, does this make sense? Or here's a question." But for me, I find that if I just say, "What do I do next?" that's pretty good because there's no danger of, for example, in a PowerPoint, just pressing the next button, if that makes sense. Right?
Today, it's even more important because we have the... I'm sure that some of the... Everyone, I'm sure has seen that the post-COVID impact on people's understanding is that they might not be in the same place as the students who were their senior, one year senior were the previous year. If that makes sense. I'm basically saying that people got set back somewhat in the learning.

Kyle Pearce: Something I'm hearing as well, just in that last comment, this idea of the PowerPoint next button. I used to rely on a very set... I used PowerPoint for years then I used the software called SMART Notebook. But everything was so like, "All right. I'm going to ask the group a question." But kids knew. It's like, "Well, we're going to go to the next thing you want to go to anyway."
What I heard you say earlier is almost like you're coming in, not planned, you are planned. It's kind of like you know what you want to get out of this lesson, but that improv side of things is sort of like how Jon and I are doing it. We always say to teachers like, "Don't give them a template to solve this problem on. Let's do this problem and then maybe after we might give a template to help them summarize the problem." Right?
So it's like actually asking them a question and then feeling like my answer is where we're going to go. It's not going to be like, "Yes, you're right. You guess what's next. Or you're wrong. Maybe somebody else can guess what's next."

Po-Shen Loh: Yes. So I actually want to say this particular thing of letting the students know that there's some dynamism, some liveliness, the reason why it's scary is if you don't have the experience of how to get up when you screw up, then you're afraid of looking back. But what I got from the improv, they just taught you how you never get stuck. You just have enough exits.
So one of the things you can say is, "Look, I don't know everything either. Let's go and figure it out." Actually, whenever I'm teaching something and I get stuck, I say, "Wow, that's really interesting." inaudible

Kyle Pearce: That's my line. I love it.

Po-Shen Loh: That's your line, yeah.

Kyle Pearce: crosstalk This is fantastic.

Po-Shen Loh: I'm sure you mean the same. It's like I knew I'm very intrigued. The moment I get across something that I don't know how to do, I'm like, "Whoa." And then the students I'll see, "Oh, when you get stuck, it's good.

Kyle Pearce: But not even just that, do you find that many times students think that you're actually lying to them? My students, they think that I do know. It's almost like they give me more respect because they're like, "Ah, you're just doing that so we do the thinking." Sometimes I'm like, "I promise, I have no idea what is happening right now. I am really intrigued and interested." And then students are like, "Oh, I think he's serious this time."
They think it's just a big act, but it does definitely help you get past those roadblocks which I totally remember. When that PowerPoint, when that next button came, I even remember sometimes forgetting what the next slide was. And you're like, I can't really speak. I can't even speak about it until it comes up on the screen. I have to look at it and go, "Oh, yeah. Now, I remember what I was going to say."
All of that is out the window and you go with the learning where the learning takes you. Then of course in the end, that facilitator mode is sort of like bringing it together and ensuring that students heard and got the learning that you were hoping they would get out of that learning experience.

Po-Shen Loh: So this particular thing is actually interesting to me because it's all related to trying to make sure there's a constant flow back and forth with the students. That's one of the reasons why when I was teaching these Zoom classes with lots of empty screens, it was hard because I wasn't getting the feedback. There is something I'm happy to share. There's something I just made by today.
If you saw it, it was called tech support when I first joined. But there's something which... I don't know if teachers will find this thing useful, especially if we have to do any remote teaching. But one of the things I just created was that in Zoom, if you're running like say a large Zoom class, unfortunately people don't really engage because unfortunately in a large zoom class, if people are typing, then it's a big mess on the comments on the side. If that makes sense.
So a lot of teachers say, "Just please don't comment, unless it is the answer." And then what ends up happening is that it's dead because the kids just don't want to say nothing. On the other hand, there might be interesting moments where in a class, if I was teaching in real life, you'd see someone crack his smile.
I just would really like it. If I could see LOL appear, LOL or something appear if you know what I mean. So actually, I'm just going to try this here just because we happen to be on this call right now. Let me see if this actually works. So I'm going to try to join this Zoom meeting right now. Do you see that I tried to join with somebody else?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. You want me to admit you?

Po-Shen Loh: Yep. That's me. Don't worry. I'm this like chat relay guy. I'm sharing this because there's a chance that this could actually be useful, especially if we end up doing any teaching pandemic advice. It's something that I created. Am I in? I think I'm in. Yes, show non-video participants. I'm in. Yeah, let's try this. I'm actually curious if this starts to show up on the screen in the chat. It takes 10 seconds.

Kyle Pearce: I see a hi.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I see it in the chat.

Po-Shen Loh: Yeah, but it takes 10 seconds. Do you see that something happened with mine?

Kyle Pearce: Oh, I see you on the bottom of your screen.

Po-Shen Loh: Yes. So the way this works is actually...

Kyle Pearce: Hi, everybody. We've got the chat-

Po-Shen Loh: So you just start typing. It takes 10 seconds for moderation. And the reason is because I actually have a separate screen that lets me moderate all of these comments as they're coming in. But the point of it is that it makes it so that you're able to have your class, or you're able to talk in a way where you can actually be seeing the comments that are coming in. Also, I mean, if there's a comment that I particularly like, I can also... I can start. Right? And that makes it, so that that comment immediately gets in.
But the reason I did this is because I wanted to try to find some way to do this Zoom type teaching where people would actually be engaged. So we are experimenting with this in some little groups. We have some little groups of about 40 middle school kids who are taking some classes with us right now. And when you have 40 middle school kids in the room with this kind of a chat box, you could imagine that it actually livens up.

Jon Orr: Yeah. I'm sure for them, it reminds them of like the super chat on YouTube live.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, right.

Jon Orr: It's like if I'm going type something, it's going to show up on the screen.

Po-Shen Loh: Yes.

Jon Orr: And everyone's going to be able to see it. Yeah.

Po-Shen Loh: Yes. And that's the point. I mean, actually, if you just type something else in, you'll see there's something else I can do to it. Of course, this works better when you have another person who's helping you. Bam, I just gave you a start. So, okay, let's put that through too. So when I said 10 seconds, it depends on whether or not the moderator guy is pressing the express link, put it through. But there's actually some game theory in this. The system that's built is designed to block span in the sense that if you have too many people commenting at the same time, the rules are that only one message can come through every second.
That makes it, so this doesn't go nuts. But which message will it be? It's actually a lottery where out of all the questions that came in to compete for that second, one will win randomly. But if you have more stars, you're more likely to win. And if you have said lousy stuff, you've been X'ed. There's a way in this thing to kill things. That drops your points.
So it's actually a lottery of you are more likely to appear in the chat if you have said reasonably good things. I'm trying to work the game theory, so that even the kids.... This is a like for middle school kids, right? The middle school kids, what do they really want? They want to see their name on the board. Okay. That's what they want.
So how do you work into their mentality? You just make it so that the way that they get seen on the board is to say something that's relevant or fun or encouraging. What we found out is then suddenly the kids aren't zoned out. They're there.

Jon Orr: I like it.

Kyle Pearce: Super cool.

Jon Orr: Very cool.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. Very cool. I look forward to being able to play with that if someday I could.

Po-Shen Loh: Oh, yeah. Actually I already put it online. So it's actually already online. I can show you guys the link afterwards. It's just zoom.poshenloh.com

Jon Orr: Yeah. Share with us and we will throw it up on the show notes page here. So anyone who is still teaching online, or we got lots of listeners who fully teach online, that's their main role. We'll put that in the show notes page, but Po-Shen, we want to respect your time. We've had a great time chatting with you about engagement, about flexibility, about taking risks as math teachers to change things and being able to go with the flow. And I think you've given us some big ideas to ponder over. But I'm wondering if you want to share one last big idea if the listener at home right now is going like, "Oh yeah, there are so many good nuggets in here." What would you say is the biggest takeaway that they should remember when they hit the stop button on this episode?

Po-Shen Loh: Yeah. So I think that it's really just around the student. But I think this is what most educators why we are in the job. Right? We do it for the students. So to me, I always look at this from the point of view of, is it delighting a student in some way? You can delight them in your entertainment. You can delight them in the production quality of what you show. You can delight them in the surprise, the technical surprise, or you can done with making it so it's their own fun that they're playing with. But my point is, if you can have delight in your class, then suddenly the students are going to be looking forward to your class.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. That is great advice. And again, something that I'm hearing the way you approached some of these suggestions and I hope that people are listening and feeling the same that you're hearing what Po-Shen is saying about getting students' attention and not taking that for granted and connecting it to our message that we are always sharing here on the podcast that there is work to be done.
Just because students have to go to school in K through 12, I know in that in post-secondary, they've supposedly agreed to do this work. The reality is that there's all kinds of other distractions out there. So how do we help convince them that this time is time well spent? I think you shared so many good ideas and I hope people at home are listening and thinking of maybe it's resonated with them in a slightly different way.
I love this chat bot that you've created. We're going to share that link in the show notes for people to check out and all of your links to your website as well as your social media. So Po-Shen, I want to thank you again for hanging out with us here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast and here's to your last few days of 2021. And hopefully we'll connect again in the new year.

Po-Shen Loh: Wonderful. Pleasure talking to all of you. Take care.

Jon Orr: Take care.

Kyle Pearce: As always both Jon and I learned so much from every interview and math mentoring moment episode here. I don't know if you caught this and read the title for today's episode, but we called it intentionally. You'll notice that Po-Shen mentioned this idea of under preparing of preparing less for math class. I hope you got a little bit of that click bait there. What he's saying, it's not that you're not preparing, because I'm going to argue that you probably have to prepare more in order to... Like he had mentioned, he took improv classes in order to help prepare him for how to handle some situations when you head down a path and you're not sure where to go.
I love his suggestion for saying things like, "Wow, that's really interesting." We talk about that on the podcast all the time. So when we say under preparing, what we mean is almost like expecting for less.

Jon Orr: You're preparing to under prepare.

Kyle Pearce: Exactly. It's like getting yourself... What's that Tom Schimmer quote, Jon, that we've mentioned on here so often, right?

Jon Orr: Yeah. Tom's got a great quote and I think it's you have to plan with precision so that you can proceed with flexibility.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. So it's sort of like he's kind of coming at it from a little bit of a different perspective there, but it's really, they're saying the same thing here is that we want to come in. We want students to feel like they're a part of this math community that there's a reason that they came. And that other piece I thought was really interesting about the recording is like, students are like, "Well, why would I show up if I could just listen in double time?
They could do it in half the time. Well, guess what? If you're scripting everything and everything is just like next on a PowerPoint, or it's the next handout, or it's the next slide, whatever, students are like, it doesn't matter whether I'm here or not. You don't see me. I'm an anonymous person in this classroom environment. Something that I'm taking away from this episode and I hope people all have a takeaway for themselves. But for me is really like emphasizing the importance of making the classroom experience dynamic where students don't feel like if you're teaching the same class, period one and period two in the day that it's not going to look and sound exactly the same.
Sure, the learning at the end, we hope that the big idea has been addressed, but that conversation and the way that lesson flowed should have some differences if I was to go from that class to this class. And I sort of got that today. Jon, what was your big takeaway today?

Jon Orr: Yeah. Big takeaway for sure is, again, that quote that you talked about is preparing so much to look like you're under prepared. I know that we've got lots of resources, lots of episodes all on this idea. I think he kind of phrased it differently that kind of the way he talked about working towards getting students to solve problems first and then summarizing later. We've talked so much about that. So that was nice to hear it coming from a different way.
So what are you guys doing to solidify and think about your takeaway? Sometimes I tend to listen to podcasts and then forget to do that. Then it's kind of like all just washed away. So take a moment right now. Think about what was a big takeaway for you. What can you change in your lessons for the next time. Or maybe it's for the future, but you definitely want to think about that. And if you need some help, hey, send us an email or get us over on Twitter @MakeMathMoments.
Any of our social media accounts, we are there. We are answering those as well. Hit us up in the Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12. Search that up if you aren't in there already. We're looking forward to hearing from you.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. And if you haven't yet, hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform. And most importantly right now, we've got a lot going on on YouTube. We have more and more subscribers each and every week. Do us a huge favor. If you found value, even if you're listening to the podcast, head over to YouTube, do us a favor. Look for Make Math Moments. Hit that subscribe button. Hit the notification bell and hit the like button because that will tell YouTube that more math educators need to see and experience this content. So that would do us a huge solid and we really appreciate it.

Jon Orr: Yeah. Show notes and links to resources from this episode, all Po-Shen's resources can be found over on our show notes page as well as the transcript from this episode at makemathmoments.com/episode162. That's makemathmoments.com/episode162.

Kyle Pearce: Well, my math moment maker friends, until next time. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And hey, a big high five for you.

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