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Episode #53 – Open Middle Math: An Interview with Robert Kaplinsky

Dec 2, 2019 | Podcast | 1 comment

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This week we sit down with problem creator, national presenter, and now author,  Robert Kaplinsky. In this tip-filled episode we chat with Robert about how to implement problem based lessons so kids high 5 each other, how we can squeeze open middle problems into our routines and why we should, and finally we chat about Robert’s mission to provide great professional development to teachers no matter their geographical location.

You’ll Learn

  • What makes good problem based lessons and how to teach with them. 
  • How to avoid creating math robots. 
  • How to use x-ray vision to see what your students know. 
  • How open middle problems can fit into your teaching routine. 
  • Where you can find good math professional development.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

CLICK HERE TO VIEW TRANSCRIPT

Robert:
It’s shocking to me, in a sense that I wish this was something that had been presented when I was a student.

Robert:
What I’ve come to realize is that the reason no teachers were using this when I was a student was because no one had used it when they were students. Just the cycle of, I mean, how are you supposed to teach in a way that you don’t even understand yourself?

Robert:
That’s really where my fire and my passion come from, is that I don’t want more kids to have the experiences that I had. [crosstalk 00:00:25] I am trying my best to support teachers so that they can empower their students as well.

Jon:
You’re listening to problem creator, national presenter, and now, author, Robert Kaplinsky. In this tip build episode, we chat with Robert about how to implement problem-based lessons so kids high-five each other. How we can squeeze Open Middle problems into our routines, and why we should.

Kyle:
Finally, we chat with Robert about his mission to provide great professional development to teachers, no matter where they are in the world. Let’s get into it! Hoot!

SFX:
(singing).

Kyle:
Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I’m Kyle Pearce, from tapintoteenminds.com.

Jon:
I’m Jon Orr, from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who, together-

Kyle:
With you, the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide, want to build and deliver math lessons that spark engagement-

Jon:
… fuel learning-

Kyle:
… and ignite teacher action. Jon, are you ready for this episode with Mr. Robert Kaplinsky?

Jon:
Of course, Kyle. Of course. We are pumped to bring you this resource-rich episode. But before we do, we want to chat with you a little about some of the questions and comments we’ve had over at least a year now on Twitter and social media and email.

Jon:
Many teachers are asking about spiralling their math class. What that looks like, what that sounds like; we even talked about it here on the podcast a couple times with Michael Rubin, on episodes 40 and 42.

Jon:
Kyle, we put some resources together. Why don’t you share how these listeners can get their hands on some great resources.

Kyle:
Yeah, if you haven’t listened to episode 40 and 42, definitely go back. There’s some great nuggets in there, great discussion with Michael.

Kyle:
But also, we also have our Complete Spiralling Guide. We have a written guide, as well as some videos that you can access freely by going to makemathmoments.com/spiral. That’s makemathmoments.com/spiral. Go check out that guide, and leave a reflection in the Comments section.

Jon:
All right. Thanks for that. Please go and check out makemathmoments.com/spiral. Now, before we get in to this episode with Robert, we want to give a quick shoutout to C. Hamilton, who has left us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcast. Tell us what C. Hamilton has said.

Kyle:
“Helpful, practical, immediate. Kyle Pearce and Jon Orr give practical PD on the go that you can use in your classroom the very next day. The insights they give have inspired me to challenge my students to own their learning, rather than them being constantly in awe of how much math I know as the teacher. I am ready to see how much they know.”

Kyle:
How awesome is that? C. Hamilton, who left us that five-star rating and review on Apple iTunes. Fantastic stuff.

Kyle:
So now we turn to you. Have you left your rating and review on Apple Podcasts, or whatever platform you’re on? It could be so helpful for us to reach an even wider audience of Math Moment Makers.

Kyle:
Take a moment, pause that podcast, and go leave that rating and review. We so appreciate all of you.

Jon:
Let’s now get into our chat with Robert.

Kyle:
Hey there Robert, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. We are so excited to have you on the show today. How are things over on the West Coast?

Robert:
They’re going great here. Very nice weather these days.

Kyle:
Yeah, what is nice weather to someone from California? We’re recording this in August; this will be coming out later in the fall. But, what does “nice” in August sound like for someone from southern California?

Robert:
I would say sunny, but not too hot. Probably 70 Fahrenheit to 80 Fahrenheit, somewhere in the 21 to 24, 25 Celsius range. Just really good breeze.

Kyle:
Whoa, you got that down. I’m proud.

Jon:
He’s done the conversions a few times. That sounds like some awesome weather too, because we would also consider that awesome.

Jon:
I don’t know, Kyle, you find our summers are hot. We have cold winters, but then hot, hot summer. It’s like, we’re talking 30-something degrees almost every day. And it’s very humid here. So it’s like, you don’t want to go outside in the summer sometimes in southern Ontario.

Kyle:
Yeah, it’s definitely a struggle. I know Jon just came back from a camping trip up north where you were, my guess is, it’s a little breezier, less humid and probably a little more enjoyable that some of the heat. But, maybe almost too cold in the evening time. What was it like up there, Jon?

Jon:
Yeah, you could put a sweater on. For sure.

Kyle:
Robert, we know you quite well, and we’ve chatted lots and lots of times. But could you help our listeners understand a little bit about yourself, where you’re coming from, and how you got into the math education world?

Robert:
It’s not a direct story. I initially didn’t intend on becoming a teacher. Out of college, I was a programmer doing websites. But then the whole dotcom bust thing happened around 2000, and I was unemployed for a year, making websites still on the side, just to survive.

Robert:
And then strangely, I was a chaperone on a field trip to the L.A. Zoo, for a friend of mine. They apparently needed another math teacher, and all I had at that point was just a bachelor’s in mathematics. I wound up getting hired as the third teacher of the year teaching seventh-grade math and science. It was not an ideal situation. Had an emergency credential.

Robert:
And honestly, I was not invested. I planned on quitting when I found a better programming job. But I realized how messed up that would be, and I’d finish off the year; I decided to do another year; and then, 15 years later, 16 years later, here I am.

Robert:
I had initially worked at a charter school, but I left there after two and a half years, and went on to teach at the Downey Unified School District, where I taught math for about five years there. Then became a math coach for another eight.

Robert:
So that was kind of where I have been.

Kyle:
That’s quite the journey. I want to dig a little deeper early on, because we just spoke with Nicki Newton. We recorded her episode before getting on with you here, Robert. She had kind of a similar story, where she kind of landed into a math job.

Kyle:
I’m wondering what was teaching for Robert Kaplinsky like in that first year or two, compared to in more recent years now? Now being someone like yourself who is well known for math professional development, sharing resources online, and inspiring all kinds of other math educators from around the world.

Kyle:
Do us a little compare and contrast. What was life like back then?

Robert:
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing back then. I was just trying to survive. I mean, I had never taken an education class in my life. I had never done any student teaching. I had never done any observations. All I had, I guess, was I had been a student of math. And I love children.

Robert:
I was at school from six a.m. to six p.m. I think I pretty much only used worksheets. I mean, I loved those children, but I didn’t know what to do. In retrospect, I was basically lecturing, just like the last kind of math education I had. Prior to that, where my instructors at college, UCLA, would lecture at me.

Robert:
For sure I would fire myself if I could go back there. And I look back now. But I have this blog post called I Hope You’re Embarrassed. What I say is that, if you look back in five years and you’re not embarrassed by what you’re doing, then you probably haven’t improved.

Robert:
While I don’t necessarily; I’m not necessarily proud of how I used to teach; other than the fact I’m mortified by it must mean that I’ve come a long way.

Kyle:
I totally agree to that. It’s great to see an influencer like yourself in the math ed world, sharing your beginnings, but then also seeing that journey that you did start, kind of just thrown into the situation. And have survived and flourished.

Kyle:
I’m actually curious because it sounds like; I don’t know if; is this still the case in your area, where you could just get hired without any education training at all? Is that common practice in California?

Kyle:
For us, right now I think you have to go through two years of teacher training before you can even be considered to be hired as teacher in Ontario here.

Jon:
That doesn’t prepare you all that well either.

Kyle:
No, it doesn’t. But we’re just shocked to hear that you could just walk in and go, “Hey, I’ll be a teacher.” Then you’re in front of kids right away.

Robert:
Yeah. Aside from the fingerprinting and stuff- [crosstalk 00:09:07] … so the days of the emergency credential, I started teaching in 2003, and the days of the emergency credential, I think lasted another three or four years. And it was over in 2007.

Robert:
But I think that the current system is broken in a way as well. Here’s what I mean. What happens now is that I was in California. Is that, it’s similar to what you experience. You have to go to college, take some education classes, then do some teaching and observations. Then, you can actually get that feel for it.

Robert:
But it’s broken in a couple of ways. One, for a lot of people it’s a year before you get to do that student teaching. I want you to think about that.

Robert:
I think we’ve seen student teachers, the majority of them are amazing. But there are occasionally student teachers who they realize, “This is not for me.” But when you’ve already put in a year before you get to experience that, I mean, that’s got to be a tough decision. Do you just start from scratch again?

Robert:
I think also the fact that student teachers literally have to pay to work is some kind of scam. That just seems wrong to me. I got paid to do my teaching, because I was a full-time classroom teacher. If I had not had that experience, I would not be a teacher. There’s certainly no way. I would have just kept working on finding a programming job.

Robert:
I was poor. I was unemployed for a year. There was no way I was going to go to school to pay to be a teacher at that point, when I had no idea if I even wanted to do that.

Robert:
Yeah, that practice is over. But I just think somehow it’s backwards.

Kyle:
Yeah, and all over the world, when we bring people on; we’ve had a few guests on from Australia; we’ve had obviously many from the U.S. and Canada. Obviously, depending on where you are, things change and there’s different rules and regulations and setups for pre service.

Kyle:
Even when you do have something like in Ontario; we just went from a one-year to a two-year program. I feel like although that’s like, “Okay, they’re trying to throw, do a step in the right direction.”

Kyle:
Just like you had said, it’s broken from the perspective that, why aren’t we spending way more time in schools? And why aren’t we helping more teachers with, like, if it’s going to be a two-year program?

Kyle:
Yeah, I like this idea of, “Let’s get them in there to make sure that they’re doing what they truly want to do, and they’re not going to just at the end, just follow through and see what happens.” Right? Because who knows what’ll happen down the road.

Kyle:
It worked out for you, which is great. But I’m sure it doesn’t always work out that way; I’m sure you’d agree.

Robert:
Yeah, exactly.

Kyle:
For sure. Well, let’s keep moving along here. On the podcast, Robert, I’m sure you’re well aware that we love asking our guests; we want to dig back, we dug back to your first year of teaching. But now we want to go even further back.

Kyle:
When you think about math class, what Math Moment, what memorable Math Moment, pops into your mind? Wouldn’t you mind sharing that with us in the Moment Maker community?

Robert:
Yeah, I think when I look back, the biggest thing is that I realize I never really understood mathematics. I think I was a pretty decent math robot who could figure out what the teacher wanted as an answer.

Robert:
But when I look back on it, I realize I had no clue what I was actually doing, or what it meant. This might be like, I remember in second grade, I was memorizing multiplication facts. But in retrospect, I don’t think I had any clue that it might have been like, seven times nine was seven groups of nine, or whatnot.

Robert:
And factoring trinomials in algebra. I knew I had to figure out what two numbers to multiply together to be this, and added together to be that. I had no idea what that meant.

Robert:
Then I just realized that that just went on, all the way through college; I graduated with a degree in math. But it really wasn’t until I started teaching where I realized that there was actually a reason for why many things happen.

Robert:
That realization that math didn’t have to be that way, that’s the moment that pops into my mind.

Jon:
You wouldn’t believe how many other educators have those same moments. I know both Kyle and I have those exact same moments. They come on the show and they thought they knew everything, and I thought I knew math. I had a degree in math. I was like, “I know the math. But I’ll need the help with classroom management.”

Jon:
But when I reflect on it, I was like you. I was a really good robot. It wasn’t until years into my teaching where you start to go, “Wait a minute; there’s so many connections that I didn’t see before, that you need to know.”

Jon:
Like Kyle just said, we talked with Dr. Nicki and we were talking so much about learning trajectories, and knowing the connections amongst concepts. These are many things that you don’t learn, even in the pre service. You just don’t know, and you think you know it, but you don’t actually know it.

Jon:
It’s like our journey and our mission to show this to the kids that we’re teaching now. Which goes into how we’re teaching math right now. I know that you spend a lot of time with problem-based lessons. I would love to get your opinion on what you think makes a really good problem-based lesson.

Robert:
Yeah, that’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while. What I say is I have made a lot of lessons I thought would be amazing, and they did not go. Or they were not received as well as I’d hoped for. And vice versa.

Robert:
I did a lesson about In-N-Out Burger, with 100 layers of meat and cheese. I really had no idea that it was going to go over so well. I was trying to figure out, “What are the attributes of lessons and ideas that can help me figure out …” I don’t want to, what I call them now is high-five lessons.

Robert:
Just informally, I want to make lessons at this point that end with kids high-fiving each other, because they had such a good time. I don’t have any desire to make lessons that don’t do that. So I was trying to figure out, what are the attributes that I should consider?

Robert:
Here are three that I think are required for a lesson to end in that high five. Then I’ll go through it. I guess first, I should talk about what is a problem-based lesson? Because I think that to some degree, anything that has a problem might be a problem-based lesson.

Robert:
Our audience might be more familiar with the problems that we make. But a lot of people call them Three-Act Task, after Dan Meyers’s terminology. They usually begin with some sort of video or picture or story or context, and they work their way through that.

Robert:
I think what is important, actually, let’s define those three acts. Because the first factor is that it has to have a third act. Act One is something like that engaging opener. Again, like with the picture, the video, et cetera.

Robert:
Act Two would be where you get the information and you solve the problem. Act Three is a big review, where you find that if you’re actually right.

Robert:
What I found is that I don’t call my lessons Three-Act Tasks, specifically because a lot of Three-Act Tasks only have two acts. What I mean is like, for example, you might wonder, how many pennies would it take to be as tall as the Statue of Liberty?

Robert:
You could probably make a really reasonable estimate. But you’re never going to have that third act, where someone actually takes pennies and stacks it up to be as tall as the Statue of Liberty. That lesson will not end in a high five, because you can’t actually verify if that’s right.

Robert:
So the third act, I’m not saying that lessons without third acts are bad; but I am specifically looking for lessons where you can verify the answer, and demonstrate it.

Robert:
I think another aspect comes from Andrew Stadel. He told me this one, and I agree with him. I think Dan also. It’s just this idea of the checkpoint. What I mean by that is that it’s no fun when you are working as a student on a lesson, and somewhere along the line, you mess up. Then you don’t find out that you’re wrong until the very end.

Robert:
So lessons for the checkpoint have some sort of way where you can see along the way, “Oh, I am not on the right path.” Have a chance to correct yourself, and then get back on the right track so you can have success ultimately by the end.

Robert:
When lessons have that built in, it gives you that chance to still have the satisfaction, even if you were along the wayside in the middle.

Robert:
I think the third factor is that they have Open Middles and closed endings. What I mean by that is that if a problem has a beginning, a middle, and an end … Let’s start with the ending. Open-ended problems are great in the sense that you can have many different correct answers, and that’s great.

Robert:
I’m not saying that open-ended problems are bad. But when you have multiple correct answers, there’s not a lot of high fives because kids are all right. Right? When it’s closed-ended and everyone got the same answer, it’s like, “Oh, it’s awesome.”

Robert:
But the counterpoint of it is having it Open Middle. By that I mean that there are multiple ways to approach the problem. When many kids approach a problem in a variety of ways, and they still end up at the same answer, it’s like, “How is that possible? That’s awesome.” And kids find excitement in that.

Robert:
Those are really the factors I would say make a good problem-based lesson, in terms of what I’m focusing on these days.

Kyle:
That’s fantastic. It’s great to hear all of these different perspectives. Really, I find on the show the thing that Jon and I often comment about after we’re done speaking with people is, how many different ways?

Kyle:
It’s like, teaching math is like a big Open Middle problem. Because there’s so many different ways to even describe what a good problem looks like, or what a good lesson or an engaging lesson might look like or sound like.

Kyle:
And, there’s no one right way. So I really appreciate that, that you clarified that as well, that you were talking about a specific type of problem. But these other types of problems can still be really interesting as well. But these are the ones that you tend to at least sink your teeth into.

Kyle:
What about those types of problems fuel you to want to do more of them? I’m a big proponent of teachers; we’re all different. We all have different personalities. We also have different skills and talents and things that we’re good at. Things that we’re not comfortable with.

Kyle:
What about this type of lesson are you just dying to sink your teeth into another one with students?

Robert:
I think it actually goes back to my Math Moment, in a sense that I know how awful it feels to be a math robot, to have no idea why you’re doing any of this. To be stuck with this “One day when you’re an engineer or doctor or lawyer, you’ll need to know this.”

Robert:
The idea that you can actually use current context or some sort of interesting relevant context; or not even relevant, but some context to teach the mathematics is shocking to me. In a sense that, “I wish this was something that had been presented when I was a student.”

Robert:
What I’ve come to realize is that the reason no teachers were using this when I was a student, was because no one had used it when they were students. Just the cycle of … I mean, how are you supposed to teach in a way that you don’t even understand yourself?

Robert:
That’s really where my fire and my passion come from, is that I don’t want more kids to have experiences that I had. I am trying my best to support teachers so that they can empower their students as well.

Jon:
It’s great that you’re doing that. If a teacher is listening, going, “Yes, this all makes sense, and I want to dive into that. I want to learn more about that.” How would a teacher get started using problem-based lessons? What are some good starting tips for them?

Robert:
The first thing that I say is that; I mean, there’s a lot of different websites that have these problems. I obviously I have them; not obviously, but I do have them on my website, at robertkaplinsky.com/lessons. I also have a problem-based lesson search engine that searches all sorts of sites that have these. And that’s on my website, robertkaplinsky.com, under Resources.

Robert:
But I think the most important thing is that you want to find one that’s fun to use. I think there might be this belief of, “I’m going to make one myself.” But if I’m just going to be honest, my first lessons were crap. I thought they were good, but I had no idea what “good” even meant.

Robert:
There are a lot of great ones. I would start with ones that you know to be fun and great, that people have had success with. Because then, if it doesn’t go well, you know that honestly, it’s you. I had lessons that were so awful that no matter how good of a teacher I was, they were doomed. So, start with ones that you know to be fun.

Robert:
Then, what I would say is, as much as you want to help kids, try to go just outside of your comfort zone, and do the least amount of help that you can.

Robert:
If you’re looking for a bible to how to actually implement them, The Five Practices for Orchestrating Mathematical Discussions by Peg Smith and Mary Kay Stein is the bible of how to actually facilitate that.

Robert:
If you’re not ready to read that book, I would say literally, just find a fun lesson, try it with kids, try to do less than you feel comfortable doing in terms of telling them what to do.

Kyle:
That’s fantastic. I’m so happy too that you had mentioned The Five Practices. We talk about that book all the time. We do it in our online course. We reference it so much. And, we actually just had Peg Smith on for episode 33, which is a while ago, once this goes live. That’ll be a while ago.

Kyle:
However, great episode. So we’ll make sure to link up that book. We’ll get Robert Kaplinsky’s site up there with his problem-based lessons, as well as his problem-based lesson search engine up there for you as well.

Kyle:
I think that’s fantastic, Robert. Going with tried-and-true tasks first to grease your wheels a little bit. Make sure that you’re feeling comfortable, because let’s be honest: we’re humans, and humans do not like change. We feel comfortable doing what we’ve always done before. I think that’s a great way to start.

Kyle:
Something I’ve seen, and what’s really hurt some teachers when they’re trying to make changes, is sometimes they jump in, and they go all in. They’re like, “I’m going to do this all by myself. I’m not going to go to Robert’s website and check out some of the ones he’s done, like In-N-Out Burger.” Fantastic lesson.

Kyle:
Obviously, we want to be thinking about learning goals and intentions. However, we want to make sure that we understand and feel comfortable delivering some of these lessons. I’m wondering, are there any pitfalls that you recall when you got started? I know Jon and I have talked about these on the show before, some of the pitfalls.

Kyle:
But I’m wondering for you, when you had those, we call them “lessons that blew up or flopped;” what were some little tidbits that you might have someone watch out for when they go and actually try to implement these for the first time?

Robert:
Yeah, I would say that the single biggest factor leading to the majority of my lesson flops that still happen, is not spending enough time anticipating how students might solve the problem, right? It’s the first practice of the Five Practices that they share.

Robert:
My mental thinking usually goes something like this. Okay, I’ve done the problem once. I’m sure all the kids are going to do this; it’s the obvious way of doing it. And that’s the end of my plan.

Robert:
What I have found is that when I can only think of it one way, or maybe two ways; and especially if I can’t think of where kids are going to get stuck; that’s a recipe for disaster. Kids are always going to get stuck. If you don’t know where it’s going to happen, and what you’re going to do, then you’re going to have to figure out what just happened in the middle.

Robert:
When you can think about multiple ways that kids have solved it, because you solved as well, you’re so much more prepared to help kids, because you know what they’re trying to do.

Robert:
This is the kind of time; I mean, going back to planning versus making a lesson. They could take hours to make a lesson. I would much rather spend that time actually doing the problem, thinking about how kids might solve it.

Robert:
It’s a great opportunity to plan with your collaborative planning time. Because I find virtually every single time when I plan a lesson out with another teacher, that the teacher approaches the problem in a different way than I did. That’s like three resources. That teacher has given me more ways to do it in the same amount of time. I think that that’s a great way to approach it.

Robert:
But I can’t emphasize enough: if you’ve only done the problem one time by yourself, you’re in for a world of hurt. If you don’t know how kids are going to get messed up, you’re in for a world of hurt. Spend time thinking about all the ways kids might solve it, because you will feel so much less stressed, and less anxiety the day of the lesson.

Jon:
Yeah, I totally agree. It’s amazing to see when you do that, how much it frees you up in the moment when you’re seeing those solutions around the room.

Jon:
I guess we’ve talked about this before, too. All of a sudden the students are working on a solution, and you have not anticipated that. You now have to take time in the moment to figure out, “What are they doing?” How does it relate to the solution that you maybe are steering them towards, or the learning goal you’re steering them towards?

Jon:
That’s all mental things that you’re going to have to think about in the moment. But if you had already pre-done all this, it’s like, now you can just quickly jump in to say how that can connect to the learning goals. So, good tip.

Jon:
The other thing I wanted to say about; I found this amazing. You referenced the Five Practices as the bible for these styles of lessons. We stumbled across it years ago, when we were adopting Dan’s and your work into our own classrooms. And we’re like, “This is the bible.”

Jon:
It’s funny, because the book doesn’t even mention Three-Act math style type of lessons. It’s just like they went hand in hand. It’s amazing to see. And it definitely caters into the Open Middle, like you talked about.

Jon:
I would love to talk more about Open Middle. Because I know that you are involved in the Open Middle Project and the website. You’ve talked a little bit about it, more about Open Middle, but you want to elaborate on the website itself and the project that you worked on in the past?

Robert:
Yeah, sure. There’s a term; I mean, when we talk about problems, you can talk about them having beginning, middles, and end. That’s where that term comes from; Open Middle comes from. But it’s now evolved into its own website and community. I’d be happy to share that with you.

Robert:
I’m going to try to paint a picture. Since I know that this is auditory, I’m going to try to paint a picture of what Open Middle problems look like in comparison to, say, a traditional math worksheet.

Robert:
Imagine your typical math worksheet, right? You’ve got 20 of the same kinds of problems on it, maybe more. As a teacher, you don’t really get a lot of information about what kids know from it. They might do a lot of problems; it might be for the practice, but you don’t really get that information.

Robert:
There may not be really great conversations, right? It’s more like robots just computing through the worksheet. Kids don’t really like doing them; they’re more like; maybe they’d perceive them closer to standards than they’d use anything fun.

Robert:
They don’t necessarily even seem to help much. If you were to run an experiment where you gave one group of kids worksheets and the other kids no worksheets; you wouldn’t expect amazing gains from the kids who used worksheets. It kind of takes you to, why are we even using it?

Robert:
I think the reality is that we use them because that’s what we’ve always done. That’s what you did when you were in school, and that’s what you think you’re expected to do; it’s what’s in your textbooks. We have this cycle continuing.

Robert:
Open Middle problems are a different kind of math problem, right? They get kids to practice their procedural skills, but they also help them build a conceptual understanding as well.

Robert:
As a teacher, when you’re seeing kids using, working on Open Middle problems, it can feel like you have X-ray vision, right? You can walk around the room, and see both what kids know, and their misconceptions much more clearly.

Robert:
When kids are working on it, you hear these amazing conversations, because kids are debating about whose answer is better, what “better” even means, and which strategies are more efficient.

Robert:
And, the teachers who use them: there’s not concrete data, but teachers anecdotally talk about how the problems help their students grow, and how the kids begged for more Open Middle problems if they hadn’t had one in a while. You don’t hear kids begging for more worksheets.

Robert:
That’s kind of like what Open Middle problems look like. The site was cofounded by Nanette Johnson and I. But the website is now community run.

Robert:
There are teams in elementary, middle, and high school. There are translators; the website’s now available in English and Spanish and French. And there are people all over the world really just studying and writing and uploading problems.

Robert:
It’s an amazing project where I’d say there’s probably six to 700 problems on the site now. And I probably only have met the people who have submitted maybe 200 or 300 of those problems. It’s really a community effort.

Kyle:
That’s fantastic. I love how clearly you have shared that, and really hitting on that procedural and conceptualism part. I like how you’ve included that.

Kyle:
Because sometimes people can sit back and listen to some of the discussions Jon and I have with guests like yourself on the show, and sometimes people walk away, even though it’s not our intention, but they walk away as if it’s like a one or the other.

Kyle:
Like, “Oh, they only care about conceptual understanding; they don’t care about students actually building fluency or building those skills like many of us have.”

Kyle:
Robert, you had articulated that you could solve tons of problems just like Jon and I could. But we didn’t have the conceptual. Really, you’re showing that it is a balance, and really helpful with these types of problems to be able to do something like that.

Kyle:
My experience using Open Middle in my own classroom, I was fascinated by the fact that I didn’t have to. Because many of the Open Middle questions don’t have what a lot of problem-based lessons sort of do have.

Kyle:
Like you had said, the idea of an image or a video and really, this notice and wonder sort of experience. Sometimes it’s just like a bunch of blanks, and there’s a certain set of criteria or conditions that students have to work with.

Kyle:
So you use the digit zero to nine to do this or that, or whatever it might be. Something I’m fascinated by, is how much kids will dig into these types of problems.

Kyle:
I look at them more or less like a challenge. It’s not necessarily piquing their curiosity initially; but once they get going and they start getting into the challenge, it’s like all of a sudden, the curiosity shows up again.

Kyle:
Now they’re like, “Whoa, am I right? Is this the best way to do this particular problem? Or can I do it another way?” I find that to be really fascinating.

Kyle:
So, hat tip to you, for coming up with not only teaming up with Nanette, but bringing this out to more of a community where everyone’s now thinking about these types of problems; both students and teachers. We’ve got a lot of people doing the math, which I think is great.

Kyle:
So I want to take a little bit of time here. We will include the Open Middle link inside the Show Note. But I think it’s a great time to talk about a forthcoming book, because I’m pretty sure Open Middle is in the title. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, Robert?

Robert:
As much as I … I’m trying to think like, there’s a lot of great things in math education. And I’m clearly biased here. But I think that, bang for buck, Open Middle problems might be the single biggest, best use of time in terms of bang for buck for teachers I’ve ever seen.

Robert:
A Three-Act Task can be challenging to figure out how to integrate into what you’re doing. But an Open Middle problem is so easy to slip into what you’re already doing. I really think it has the biggest bang for buck in terms of what you want to see.

Robert:
But at the same time, if I’m bragging here, I think that maybe only a fraction of a single percent of math teachers have even heard of Open Middle.

Robert:
I’m trying to reconcile how that is, and I’m just really trying to figure out how do we get this idea, these ideas, in front of more people? And try to think about why so few math educators have heard of it.

Robert:
I think that part of it is that it’s primarily something you would learn about online, or at math conferences. The reality is that most math teachers are not online. They’re not on Twitter, looking at blogs, things like that. They’re not attending math conferences, and they realize that a large portion of teachers, where they do get information, is from books.

Robert:
My hope is that if I can write more about what Open Middle is, about how it could change how you’re approaching teaching, that it would be something that would be, gain more traction with more teachers.

Robert:
I wrote it conversationally. At first I was trying to make it authoritative. But I realized that I hate reading books like that. So I really wrote it from the perspective, like you and I are sitting in a teachers’ lounge, just chatting about this new idea. Covering everything from why you’d even want to use it, how they work, preparing to teach it, what happens when things don’t go right. And how do you make it your own.

Robert:
It’s got something for teachers, whether you’re new to Open Middle problems or you’re a veteran. Really, I’m just excited to get this book in the hands of teachers; the people who have already read it have found that it really has fresh ideas. I’m just really excited to see what the community thinks.

Jon:
The subtitles you just gave there about the book, very very curious to me. For example, the one that just rang off the top of my head was, when you said, “What happens when things don’t go right?”

Jon:
I’ve used Open Middle problems before. Kyle has, and probably our listeners are more of your online learner type of people, so they might already be familiar with it.

Jon:
I wonder if you could give us a couple tidbits from the book. What would we do when things don’t go right? What are the tips there?

Robert:
Yeah, the beauty and the curse is that there are so many ways to solve it, right? Open Middle problems allow for a lot of strategies. There have been times when kids solve it in a way that I had never considered, or I’m not even sure if it’s right. It might be that they made so many mistakes that they somehow magically got back at the same correct answer.

Robert:
I’d consider where your options are, right? An initial option might be, I mean, if I could just get an awful option out of the way, one thing you might think is like, “That wasn’t what I had been showing you in class. I’d prefer if you pay attention, and actually do it the way I’ve been showing you.”

Robert:
That’s actually what you are thinking, but the reality is that, that would crush the student. The reality is that, I mean, you’ve got this opportunity to either make an amazing Math Moment for these kids; or make one that they’re going to hate forever.

Robert:
Instead, you can always begin with, “Wow, I have never seen anyone approach it that way.” When you say something like that, you’re not necessarily confirming that it’s “correct.” But just that you’d never seen anything like that.

Robert:
From there, you can tell them that you’d like to, you want to buy time, right, you can say, like, “I’d love more time to think about it.” Again, what kid won’t be thrilled that a teacher loves what they’re doing, said they’ve never seen it before, and wanted more time to study it? Right at that point, you can then talk to your colleagues and ask for input there. You can study it yourself.

Robert:
What I would definitely recommend not doing also is having that child come up to the front of the class and share with everyone. The reality is that if you don’t understand how they solved it, when the kid comes up and presents it, there’s a really good chance that that entire class will be lost.

Robert:
I’m not saying never have that kid come up and share it. But wait until you actually understand, so you can make it part of a strategic conversation.

Jon:
Right. Right. It sounds like building that into the story of that particular math problem, and consolidating that, instead of it just being aimless, right?

Robert:
Yeah, and I would say, I mean, I was fortunate to have Peg Smith review my book, because the book is essentially … a good chunk of it is, what would happen if you took the Five Practices and applied it to Open Middle problems? Or vice versa, right? You apply the Five Practices to Open Middle problems.

Robert:
If you have not spent enough time anticipating, or if you don’t know what the strategy is, you won’t necessarily know if you want to select it or how you want to sequence it. Or how you’re even going to connect it to everything else.

Robert:
There is that aspect to it, in terms of how do you actually take what you’re doing to that next level? That’s part of the book.

Kyle:
What’s resonating with me is this idea that we as teachers, again, we say it quite a bit on the podcast, it’s like we don’t have to know everything. We don’t have to know every answer and be high and mighty. That’s the way I know I started my career.

Kyle:
And I’m sure, based on what you’ve said, Robert, about how you started, where you kind of got thrown in there, you probably felt like this need to have the answers.

Kyle:
Really, what I’m hearing from you is that, you know what, maybe we have to just let kids realize that, “Hey, guess what? We don’t know the answers too.” Maybe that might help them stick with problems a little bit longer.

Kyle:
That’s so fantastic to hear. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book. We have not read it yet, but once it is freely available, we’re going to grab it. We’ll have links to that in the Show Notes.

Kyle:
I want to go back something that you mentioned earlier. I made a note to myself here, and it was about this idea that you had said that “so few teachers were aware of great sources like Open Middle.”

Kyle:
Or even, you could apply it to Three-Act Math Tasks. Or maybe some have heard of it, but could they define what it is, or what it looks like in a classroom? Or even like a good problem-based lesson?

Kyle:
I’m wondering; and I feel like you are working on this. What are you doing to help bring more math teachers to the table for professional development? Because not everybody gets to go to the conference, like NCTM, or even some other local state conferences. They don’t get the chance to go and learn about some of these things.

Kyle:
And if they’re not active on, say, Twitter or Facebook or some other type, what can they do online in order to gain some of that great mathematics PD?

Robert:
Yeah, thank you for asking. I think that we’re in a transition in terms of how we consume professional development. If you think of phones as an analogy, there was a point where having smartphones, like you see today, was weird. And having a flip phone was normal.

Robert:
But now, if you bust out a flip phone, you’re going to seem like a hipster, like that’s going to seem weird. So somewhere along the way, it shifted. I think, again, a similar thing is coming with teacher professional development.

Robert:
I think that some people are still getting used to this idea of online professional development. But when you think about the cost of in-person professional development, including conference fees, and travel expenses, along with all the days you’re out of the classroom, I think that having flexible and affordable workshops from educators that you already know, like, and trust; will be the way to go.

Robert:
And so in 2016, I started a company called Grassroots Workshops. We offer flexible online workshops from educators that you choose. Think about what it is if the websites Etsy and MasterClass had a baby? And it was a teacher professional development baby? It would be Grassroots Workshops.

Robert:
Let me explain what I mean. When you think about Etsy, Etsy is a website that provides unique and vintage hand-craft items. I love the site because they make my life better.

Robert:
Etsy sellers are looking for people to buy their products. I’m looking to find these people, but there’s no way to connect each other. Without Etsy, I have a really hard time finding it. So everyone wins from Etsy.

Robert:
In the same way, I know that there are so many educators out there that have great things to share. There’s tons of people who would love to learn from them. But it’s really hard for them to find one another. What if there was a website to connect people who have these great ideas with people who want them?

Robert:
The second part is MasterClass. MasterClass is a website where they have The Person teaching a subject. For example, Steve Martin teaches comedy, or Serena Williams teaches tennis. Or Carlos Santana teaches guitar. It’s The Person.

Robert:
Now, I’m sure you could search right now and find a thousand different guitar lessons. But, how many are going to have the credibility of Carlos Santana? I think the same thing is true in education.

Robert:
You could probably take a dozen workshops on problem solving. But, for example, you guys have a workshop on Grassroots Workshops. If people know you, they like what you share, and they trust that you’re going to help them, they’re going to want to take a workshop from you guys. They’re not going to want to take a workshop just from anyone. That’s the idea.

Robert:
I’m trying to really allow people to learn from who they want to learn. And I’m desperately looking for more instructors as well, because I think that the larger the community, the better that we’ll have a chance of meeting people’s needs.

Kyle:
Yeah, Robert, that sounds fantastic. I know for myself, being able to go and find things; you had referenced, you could go to YouTube and you can go down a rabbit hole for a couple hours, just watching videos and still not come up with what you were looking for.

Kyle:
I’m wondering, can you give us a heads-up on who are we to see this coming spring, on Grassroots? Maybe just one or two that might be on the Grassroots Workshops page? Just so that folks know where they can go to get some fantastic PD. And, some credit hours, too, for those who need it.

Robert:
Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean, you can earn two to four graduate or professional development credits from Brandman University. So it’s a great way to move over on the pay scale as well.

Robert:
In the spring, there will be workshops from Pam Harris; she is doing a workshop for middle school teachers. Sort of that fifth-sixth-seventh grade range on ratios and proportional reasoning.

Robert:
I’m doing a workshop called Empowered Problem Solving, which is a combination of both those Three-Act Tasks, problem-based lessons like we were talking about. And Open Middle.

Robert:
If you want to have a workshop that is based in problem solving, then I think that what you’ll find is that you could have a Three-Act Task kind of to do more of the application. And then the Open Middle task help you with more of the procedural skills and conceptual understanding.

Robert:
Then later on, Andrew Stadel will be having a workshop around integrating estimation into your workshop. Then there’s many others that are on the way, that I’m not able to announce at this moment. But, coming soon.

Jon:
Awesome stuff. When I think about online learning, or even the in-person learning, there’s always elements that you want to see. Or when you’re sitting in professional development, or engaging in professional development, there’s always some that it’s like, “That was really great,” or that was, “Ahh, that wasn’t so great.”

Jon:
In your opinion, what would make really good professional development sessions? Do you have some opinions on that?

Robert:
Yeah, I mean that’s a really challenging question, because it’s complex and it’s different for a lot of different people. Here’s some thoughts, though.

Robert:
The first reality is that we are expected to tailor our instruction for students; but professional development is rarely tailored for us. What winds up happening is that you go to a training, where it’s one size fits all. Then you have to figure out, “What might that look like in my classroom?” That’s the best-case scenario.

Robert:
The reality is often that you’re learning about things that you didn’t really have any say in. They just said, “You’re going to this, and you’re going.” I think that having more flexibility; I think even when and how you consume it.

Robert:
I mean, there’s very few teachers who are thrilled about leaving the classroom for a day or more to go to a conference. The conference itself, or the training itself, might be wonderful. But we all know it’s no fun making sub plans and dealing with the aftermath when you get back.

Robert:
I think the flexibility of allowing people to learn what they want, from who they want, when and how they want, is something that people are really going to appreciate when that becomes something that is just more prevalent.

Robert:
I think that flexibility in both what you’re learning and how you’re learning it is really important.

Kyle:
Yeah, you’re so right. Just thinking back to that, I feel like; and I know, Robert, you probably have this experience as well. If there’s people coming to see even you live, like to see Robert Kaplinsky live or, Jon and I, sometimes have people coming to see us and do a workshop live; if people have not heard of you before, and they’re just showing up, I find it’s like it takes them a good 10 to 15 minutes before they go, “Oh. This might be okay.”

Kyle:
That just means they’ve had so many experiences where they’ve been taken and brought to the water. There’s a bunch of water there, but it’s like, “I never said I was thirsty for that over there.” You know? “I wanted something way over here.”

Kyle:
It sounds like you’re providing teachers with that flexibility to be able to access great PD and connect with other awesome educators from around the world.

Kyle:
I know Jon and I have learned so much from you and the Grassroots Workshop community. So we want to definitely thank you for all you’ve done for us, and helping us better determine how do we bring some of what we can offer people, to the forefront? And really give them the opportunity come and participate regardless of where they are in the world. Both Jon and I want to thank you for that.

Kyle:
Before we wrap up here, Robert, we want to give you an opportunity; are there any other; and I mean, I don’t know how you could possibly have any other projects going. We’ve talked about a book; we’ve talked about how you have Grassroots up and running and rocking. I’m sure you’re still doing live PD like nobody’s business.

Kyle:
Is there anything else that’s kind of; maybe it’s on the back burner, but maybe it’s going to inch up towards the front of the burner, once all of these things move out of the way. Anything else that you’d like to share with Math Moment Maker community?

Robert:
That’s pretty funny. I’m doing, that’s just kind of to get going with these projects. The one small thing I’d say; and really, a lot of the stuff I share, I share for the version of Robert who had no idea what he was doing, but wished he did.

Robert:
One thing I’d say that I’ve been … I expect this to be a never-ending project that I’m trying to work on. And to really build better understanding of, is the work around social justice.

Robert:
What I’d recommend to people if you’re trying to do more social justice, and you believe in equity, what I found to be particularly valuable is participating in these Clear The Air chats on Twitter. The hashtag is #ClearTheAir, one word.

Robert:
I’m finding that the more that I learn, the more I realize I have no clue. So I try my best to listen and to learn. And I really recommend that others do the same.

Jon:
That’s great of you to point out, too, because we’ve been doing a lot of learning in that area, too. Those chats, they’re great to participate in. We had called it gaps in our knowledge, or blinders on. Definitely things you’ve got to think about that maybe you not have thought about before. So check out #ClearTheAir for sure.

Jon:
Robert, where can more people go to learn more from you? Take time for your website, or where else could people learn more from you after listening to this?

Robert:
Thank you for asking. Three places I’d love for you to check out. First is my website; that’s robertkaplinsky.com. Kaplinsky is spelled K-A-P as in Paul, -L-I-N-S-K-Y. I have lots of lessons there, resources, a blog post every week.

Robert:
I’d love for you to check out openmiddle.com. That’s spelled like it sounds. Finally, I’d love for you to check out my book, Open Middle Math: Problems That Unlock Student Thinking, Grades 6 Through 12. The content is for all grade levels in terms of the strategies. But the examples I use are specific to sixth-grade through calculus.

Kyle:
Perfect. Perfect. Robert, we want to thank you for joining us here on The Make Math Moments Podcast. And we hope you enjoy the rest of your summer. I know that people listening to this, it’ll be more towards the fall, but we are recording this summer. So, hope you enjoy the rest of your summer.

Robert:
Thank you.

Jon:
Thanks Robert. Talk to you soon.

Kyle:
We want to thank Robert again for spending some time with The Math Moment Maker community. He’s shared so many insights with both you and us, as well as the rest of our Math Moment Maker community from around the globe.

Jon:
As always, how will you reflect on what you’ve heard from this episode? Have you written ideas down? Have you drawn a sketch note? Are you sending out tweets or live-tweeting the episode? Are you talking about this episode at work with other teachers?

Jon:
Be sure to engage in some sort of reflection, so that you can make sure that the learning here we did today sticks with you, for you and your students.

Kyle:
And, for those people who are interested in spiralling, we’ve been receiving lots and lots of questions. Make sure you head back to episode 40 and 42, which was a Math Mentoring Moment episode with Michael Rubin.

Kyle:
Also, after, make sure you check out the Complete Guide to Spiralling; both the written and the video series can be accessed at makemathmoments.com/spiral. That’s makemathmoments.com/spiral.

Jon:
In order to ensure you don’t miss out on new episodes as they come out each week, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle:
Also, if you’re liking what you’re hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague, and help us reach that wider audience by leaving us a review on iTunes, or now Apple Podcasts. And tweet us your biggest takeaway by tagging @makemathmoments on Twitter.

Jon:
Show Notes and links to resources for this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode53. That is makemathmoments.com/episode53.

Kyle:
Well, I think we all know what time it is. I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon:
And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle:
High fives for us.

Jon:
And high fives for you.

Both:
(singing).

SFX:
(singing).

In our six module (16 week) online workshop you’ll learn how to build and adjust your own lessons that engage students, build deeper understanding of math, and promote resilience in problem solving.

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We’ll release one module each week for the first 6 weeks. Then you’ll have another 10 weeks to work through the content ON YOUR SCHEDULE!

LEARN MORE about our Online Workshop: Making Math Moments That Matter: Helping Teachers Build Resilient Problem Solvers. http://makemathmoments.com/onlineworkshop

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1 Comment

  1. Ralifo Nasario

    Hi. There are tons of problems within schools that makes math boring despite teacher experience, pds attended, or education that one acquired. And yes teaching would now require all teachers to have education units done. We seem to know the subject content but are faced with difficulties how to explain it so that students from different backgrounds learnt and know it. Wow we are faced with a huge task already within our schools and then we go home only to face other family problems….recipe for disaster…so we go through all these like a robot….to get through it all and pretend…like a game…. okay I am just generalizing here.

    The methods here are great….problem based learning. But can I have examples emailed to me. I suggest you target the maths HODs because these are middle managers who can bring about changes in there maths departments.

    And yes most math teachers use textbooks but seldom look up internet for learning. There is a huge gap here. Depending on where you are in the world as a teacher, your pay, your situation, students attitudes, some have access to knowledge such as this podcast…books written on math teaching methods …math moments.
    Some don’t have this. Others have access to internet but not utilizing it for learning math only for facebook etc.

    Oh yeah my country Fiji requires maths departments to conduct pd sessions within the department at least once a term for 3 terms but funny thing is that I do poorly hete. Just now your discussions on math moments gave me some new ideas on what I can do in pds in 2020.

    I would appreciate if you could email me more. Keep up the good work.

    Thanks.

    Reply

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