Episode #89: Dan Meyer & Three Act Math
Today we speak with the creator of the 3-act math structure, Guinness Book of World Record holder, national speaker, and Chief Academic Officer at Desmos, Dan Meyer.
We get the dirt on Dan’s background as a student and early days as a teacher. He shares his insights on what lessons should look like, sound like and he lets us in on what a Chief Academic Officer really does.
Stick around and you learn the origin story of the 3-Act math structure and why you need to know about it; how to use what you value in math lessons to bring out wonder and perplexity; the good and bad of ed-tech: what makes a great tech tool while teaching remotely; and, how being culturally aware humans can make us better teachers.
- The origin story of the 3-Act math structure and why you need to know about it.
- What we value in a math lesson and how to use wonder and perplexity to teach those values.
- The good and bad of ed-tech: what makes a great tech tool while teaching remotely.
- How being culturally aware humans can make us better teachers.
Dan Meyer: The way you teach now, whatever that way is, it is currently changing you. It is doing work on you personally, spiritually even if you want to go there. Teaching is a relational event. You're there with 30 to 40 students perhaps over the course of a year. Whether you want to believe it or not, it's relational and it's changing how you relate to people in the world. So-
Kyle Pearce: Well, well, well, today math moment makers, we speak with the creator of the 3 Act Math task structure, Guinness book of world record holder, a national speaker and chief academic officer at Desmos, Mr. Dan Meyer.
Jon Orr: We get the dirt on Dan's background as a student and early days as a teacher. He shares his insights on what lessons should look like and sound like. And he lets us in on what a chief academic officer really does.
Kyle Pearce: Stick around and you'll learn the origin story of the 3 Act Math task structure and why you need to know about it, how to use what you value in math lessons to bring out wonder and perplexity, the good and bad of ed tech, what makes a great tech tool while teaching remotely, and how being culturally aware humans can make us better teachers. Queue up that music. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce from tapintoteenminds.com.
Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together.
Kyle Pearce: With you the community of math moment makers worldwide who wants to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity.
Jon Orr: Fuel sense-making.
Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves. Are you ready to dive in with one of the change makers that really influenced how we think and deliver our math lessons?
Jon Orr: Of course, Kyle, of course. We are super honored to bring on Dan in this particular episode to chat about 3 Act Math and what his teaching looked like early and how that influenced where he is now. So we're super excited to bring you that.
Kyle Pearce: And before we dive in and get to talk with Dan, we'd like to thank you for listening to us wherever you are, in the car, at the gym, in the kitchen washing dishes, or maybe on your prep time. If you've listened to us before and enjoyed the episode and got some value out of it, we'd love to hear about it. We read all of the reviews from this podcast. And right now, we want to share one of those awesome reviews from a math moment maker just like you. This one is from Lisa K. Coach on Apple Podcasts.
Jon Orr: Making Math Moments That Matter is addictive. So glad I found this podcast. I discovered it just a few months ago and have listened to almost all of the episodes. It has been a lifesaver in my first year as a math coach in a K-8 school district. So many helpful resources. Thank you, Kyle and Jon.
Kyle Pearce: Wow, Jon, isn't that fantastic? Nothing energizes us more to keep on recording these episodes for the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast listening community than seeing and reading those ratings and reviews come in on all of the podcasting platforms out there, especially Apple Podcasts.
Jon Orr: So have you taken 10 seconds to hit pause, scroll down in your podcast app and tap five stars? Okay, okay. Don't hit five stars if you don't think it's accurate, but please do give us a rating for that quick feedback.
Kyle Pearce: If you want to the math moment maker hero, then take the extra two minutes to also write us a short one to three sentence review, we would really appreciate it.
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Jon Orr: All right, enough from us, let's get on to the fantastic conversation with Dan. Hey there Dan, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. We are so excited to have you on the show today. How are you doing out there in California these days?
Dan Meyer: No one's more excited than me to be on the show here, Jon and Kyle, thanks for the invite. Certainly it helps break up my days, which are a lot of routine these days, a lot of indoor times, a lot of work and family, work and family. So happy to have a fun diversion chatting math, technology, life with a couple of colleagues.
Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff. Awesome stuff. Dan, yes. Folks who are listening at home, we are going to ask you to tell folks a little more about yourself. But if they've listened to our episodes in the past, they definitely know of you because we reference you quite a bit because you've had a significant impact on essentially the trajectory of how Jon and I fundamentally think about math class. So we'll dive into that. As you're mentioning, routine is kind of interesting right now. We are recording this during the COVID situation going on. So many of us know what that's like sitting and living inside quite a bit. But why don't we dive in a little bit, tell folks a little bout yourself. What's your math teaching story or journey? What got you into this thing called a math education?
Dan Meyer: Oh yeah, sure. I'll give some of your listeners the inside dirt that I don't talk about ever. So I was homeschooled from grade K to year eight. So for my first nine years, I went to school, me and my twin sister, we were taught by my mom. There was a small network of other folks like us in my small town, but we didn't see them every day. So that was my world, was homeschooling. I learned math in, let's just say it was a very self-directed kind of way. By year eight, I was learning math on VHS video tapes. A guy had filmed himself working on a white board, I did exercises out of a book. There were work examples next to it. I mean, we're talking some real proto Khan Academy type stuff.
I hated it, I absolutely hated it. I never felt stupider in my life than that year, not being able to interpret these work examples, which didn't speak to my understanding in that moment. That was the first part of things. And then I went to a public high school, the math department there was bonkers good, two teachers in particular, Gary Cavender. He gave me advice when I was a student that, "Hey, here's a secret of teaching is you've got to perplex them," he said, perplex them. And he knew how to set off a lesson in a way that was perplexing in no doubt that you can recognize some of the DNA of that line in later work that I do as a teacher, and I strongly see it in your work.
And then also Mr. Bishop has been more helpful for me now, which is a sense of true wonder about both mathematics and about his students, which is I think just really uncommon especially for math teachers is ideally we find math teachers who are super curious about math, not always a guarantee. But also we find math teachers who are curious about their students and their unique ways of coming to know complex mathematics and their unique cultural ways of knowing math and their unique ways of just being. And Mr. Bishop, we would pester him for what's our grade. And he did not care, he was utterly unconcerned with the structures of schooling and even some of the formalities of mathematics. He was just so interested in math and interested in us. And that really set me on a path to study math in University.
Jon Orr: Yeah. I find that so interesting in the sense that you had these two characters that have shaped or helped shaped. And I want to riff on that just for a moment just because it fascinates me how that, say influenced you in your career. Did it influence you right away when you went into teaching? I guess for one thing you kind of said it sparked you to go off in university, but did it spark you to become a teacher? And if so, did it spark you to teach that way right away or was there a period of teaching traditionally? I only say that because I started off as a very traditional teacher for a long time until things started to change with Marion Small's work, your work obviously. But very early, I was that teacher because I didn't have figures like you described. I had the very tradition teachers all the way through school. So obviously they influenced you. But did you have the way you teach now right away or was that a progression?
Dan Meyer: I think a lot of times in these conversations, we can say things like traditional or progressive or problem-based and a lot of folks kind of nod their heads. And we have this, maybe a shared idea that we're talking about. What do you mean traditional?
Jon Orr: I guess we've used that term here on the podcast to say the teacher comes in and says, "Today, we're going to learn about this. Here are your worked examples, here's the definition, here's the formula. Here's 25, 30 minutes to do your practice homework. Rinse and repeat, we'll do that all over again starting with the 10 minutes of homework take up the next day." That was my experience in high school mathematics and elementary school. My father is also a math teacher who taught exactly that way for his whole career. And then that's why I felt that was the handbook, that's the way math teaching is supposed to go. And so for eight years, I taught that way until I was kind of sparked that it would be different. And so I guess you had a much different experience it sounds like than I did. And I guess I'm curious to see if that has shaped your teaching out of the gate or was there a progression of how you got into say 3 Act Math and the other ways of teaching with perplexity and wonder.
Dan Meyer: I'll just say I feel very lucky to have had such evocative examples of good teaching in my life that when I was ready to learn from them as a teacher, they were still around in my brain, still there. That is to say I have had a lot of traditional teaching in my life, and I have watched a lot of movies. And I know kind of the cultural, what was very empowering for me was a cultural script of what a good teacher is, especially a good math teacher is one who offers the wisdom of the ages to students and then see that they can write it down and then repeat it later on a test or homework.
That was much more evocative for me at the time. When I started teaching, it's like you hear all the advice from your teacher mentors at the time, which sound like nice ways to decorate a home, let's say. It's like, oh, this will be a great way to arrange your home here. And then you go into class, go into your experience teaching where I did. And it was like, oh, the home is on fire. Well, what do I do with this advice about feng shui of your living room? It's like, no, I have very serious urgent needs right now that that advice did not seem to immediately fill. Some of those were related, in fact I was like a 21-year-old and I was teaching in a setting that had a huge population of black and brown students.
And I'd never been friends with a black or brown kid in my life, didn't have any of my school growing up be black kids. And Hispanic kids, I didn't talk with them at all. And so that was not a good situation for the students especially. And I was struggling to relate and to recognize their humanity even as a 21-year-old. I wasn't thinking about those lessons from Mr. Bishop and Mr. Cavender. But as I gathered my feet beneath me a little bit more, those lessons were there, they were kind of dormant but ready to be awakened.
Kyle Pearce: Interesting. Interesting. So I'm wondering because you had asked Jon what his interpretation of traditional was. So when you got into that world or maybe even like, I'm curious now about maybe your pre service experience. Were you being sort of nudged to teach a certain way which either may have aligned with Mr. Cavender or Mr. Bishop, or maybe you were pushed to teach maybe a little differently to what folks or society, or I guess the movies sort of deem as being a good math teacher? What did that look like, sound like? And was there any sort of maybe an intersection there or did you find that it was sort of like an either or and you sort to had to go ... We talk to teachers sometimes who say my pre service teacher, their associate teacher as we call them in Ontario is telling me that I have to do X, Y, or Z in order for me to pass the evaluation or whatever it might mean. Do you recall that happening? I don't know if you reflected on that before, or is there anything you can reflect on now with us to paint that picture?
Dan Meyer: For your listeners, I would just say bottom line whatever your regard for my work or theirs, I did not start out teaching in a way that was recognizably different from any other teacher in the building really. And in many cases was far worse, especially in how they related with students that were different from them. Traditional and progressive are binary distinctions Like you're one of the other. They don't really accommodate the ways that teachers will take up ideas gradually and try changes incrementally. And those are fantastic. And so I just want to make sure that folks who've listened to 80 plus episodes of your podcast know there's ways to just like start out and try things without huge investments of my entire year is banked on this one idea I heard from Jon and Kyle. But rather like I'm going to bank five minutes in a week and see if my class responds in a different way.
I had a fantastic university pre-service education, but I wasn't ready to learn from it. I think it might've been too subtle in some ways. We did problem based learning and we learned in ways that respected the students' ideas. Then I go into the class and I don't know how to get, I don't know how to relate, I don't know how to create a productive working environment. My problems were just so from what I was learning. I think that the three of us have done a lot of consulting externally. And I have come to realize how important a curriculum is to a teacher.
Some schools, they don't have an adopted curriculum and teachers kind of make their own resources or the board does itself. And a consultant can step into those environments and offer some organizing principles in the absence of an organizing curriculum. But when there is a curriculum that has organized the mathematics and has imposed some ideas about what teaching looks like, that is a very tricky place to try ideas out about teaching that are in congruent with the curriculum. I've had a very traditional curriculum as a new teacher as well that laid things out in a way that was like, here's your three work examples, and now here's your 20 practice problems. It's like, oh, I guess this is what I do, which is kind of what I'm really excited that it does most of these days where we're actually like building a core curriculum that allows us to offer ideas about teachings that are congruent with the curriculum that teachers use because we're building a curriculum.
Jon Orr: I think the flexibility of a district or a board having the teacher's professional judgment in deciding on how to modify, say that curriculum or add to it or subtract from it is super important when designing a plan of attack for a teacher. And I think you're right in the sense that beginning teachers need that. You would flounder if you didn't have that kind of guideline to start with, and you can build from there after. Actually, I want to keep going on that in a little bit because I do want to see how that kind of for your progression, where the 3 Act Math structure spawned from. We want to get into that.
But before we do that, we do want to get into a question that you kind of hinted on or answered already. This is the only question I think we ask every single one of our guests, which is a memorable math moment. You kind of hinted about a couple key characters in your life, but I wanted to give you a chance to say, is there anything else when we say math class that pops into your brain as a memorable moment for you?
Dan Meyer: In math class specifically or with math in general? Help me out here.
Jon Orr: I guess we've left it open. So some teachers say it's something that they had in class as a teacher or as a student or in general is fine. Anything that we've missed a math class or a math moment, you can go for it.
Dan Meyer: Let me just say this, math has been a very powerful tool for me in my personal life and powerful tool to help me understand the world. One time I broke a Guinness World Record and math was indispensable for doing that. The real heads know about this story, the long-timers, real friends. But for the new friends out there, the deal is that I figured out through mathematics that a particular world record was soft, that it was beatable. And that was the record of the longest paperclip chain made by an individual in 24 hours. And the person that had previously set it had set it at a embarrassingly slow rate of paperclipage. And that was a mathematical observation that spurred me to invest a good chunk of that year of college into preparing to break it and breaking that record during a 24 hours stretch.
I don't know if the previous record holders had done this, but I had myself a nice spreadsheet where I had a buddy entering some numbers and then using like an algorithm that I had pre-programmed in, an algorithm that would be completely familiar to any kind of secondary student in Canada. It was a unit conversion issue, like clips per second, translate that into miles in 24 hours. At the end, when I had to unroll the whole thing and measure it where folks who did not know the power of math in their world might've been just hopeful, like I'm hoping that I did it. It was almost perfunctory kind of boring process for me. I had such confidence in the math that I knew what it would be. I knew at what hour I'd broken the previous record, I knew what it was going to be at the end of the enrolling.
That's one thing that math offers us. The math offers a way of describing the world that is not just like, oh, it gets me a grade or I can do a word problem in the book and the answer at the back of the book matches my work. But actually like, no, this is real. We're not playing around here, this can be used hopefully for ways that are more substantial than just breaking a dumb record. But anyway, that was a moment for me.
Kyle Pearce: I was going to laugh because I thought you were going to go down the path when you said, if anything, if what math can offer us is the ability to break world records. But no, you're right, being able to model the world around you. What's really interesting, I wanted to riff a little bit on the style of lesson that really changed how we were teaching in our own classrooms. And when you think of that scenario, that world record scenario, to me, that was just one big 3 Act Math lesson that you didn't plan for kids, you did it for yourself. And that is fantastic. Before we move on though, this is a detail, I knew about the world record, but I don't know the details. So was it a single individual? Did you do this for 24 hours straight or could you tag team people in and out?
Dan Meyer: I was the only person that could chain the clip. This is the act two of the 3 Act Math task. For those who don't know, 3 Act Math is a structure of problem-solving that I developed and iterated on over time. And the first act is one where you kind of hook people with a real question that is real to them. A short question, that's a visual ideally, pose that word. So it's like, will this person breaks the record? What is he doing here? And then act two doesn't present that information in advance, you have to think about what information do you need to answer your question? Which is a moment where students can bring all kinds of fantastic contextual knowledge to bear. So can this dude pee? What happens if he has to go to bathroom?
Kyle Pearce: Have you factored that in?
Dan Meyer: There's no room for that kind of contextual knowledge in a traditional word problem where it's like, here's the weight, here's number of clips and here's the time, and what's the answer? So your question is fantastic act two question, what are the constraints around this? I had to be the one to chain every clip, but I had people who were pushing clips towards me in groups of three all arranged in a particular way that I knew I could click, click, click, and move real fast through them.
Kyle Pearce: I hold you in very high regard, but you just bumped up another notch. I had no idea it was you for 24 ... I don't think I could do anything for 24 hours straight. So that is quite spectacular. And I was so happy that you gave folks a vision into this idea of the 3 Act Math task, because exactly what you're describing, I can remember this vividly from about 10 years ago at an OAME conference, it was in Toronto. And I had never heard of you, I hadn't seen a, there's an amazing Ted talk video, we'll post it in the show notes for those who haven't seen Dan's Ted talk.
But sitting there as a teacher who I would describe myself as a teacher who taught very procedurally. So I came in, I cared, I tried really hard. I wanted kids to understand the math, but I didn't really know what understanding math was at the time. I was just spinning my wheels and then to see this something that was just so, it seemed so logical after, it seemed so, obvious is the wrong word. But it just seemed like, yeah, why am I not thinking like this? This is engaging, this will get kids drawn in. And that for me was big.
So a question that we have is when you think about 3 Act Math, and you think about ... Now going back, I didn't know your story about your two teachers and how perplexing was this skill or this idea that you learned from him. I think it was Mr. Bishop you had said. Obviously, we see that in your work in 3 Act Math. Could you give us a little bit of a glimpse into, how did this happen in your classroom? If you went into your first year of teaching, do you mind describing what a lesson might look like, sound like then? And then how did this idea progress? Did you stumble upon it? Was it something that you were like, "Yeah, I'm going to try to perplex and I'm going to do it this way," or were you trying all kinds of different ideas and then finally something stuck? I've always been curious about how that developed or came to be.
Dan Meyer: So briefly I taught with three worked examples and had students working on crossword problems in class, a structure that would be very familiar to just a lay person, a civilian non math teacher for a while. But I had these experiences that really enthralled me with math. I was in love with mathematics. I really enjoyed the power of math to describe my world. It felt like a super power, it felt like I had x-ray glasses that let me see the structures that were undergirding everything around me. Show me the first part of a basketball shot, and I can tell you with more probability or a lot of certainty if the ball is going in or not because I know what a inaudible is and how it operates in the world.
That kind of thing just really lit me up. And if that does for your listeners or for a teacher, they probably have felt some frustration that I felt as well that the math my students were learning did not awaken them to that power of mathematics in their world. I'm walking around seeing menus that are offering three of a thing for a price that is even greater than the one of a thing times three. I'm looking at that like, oh my gosh, this is so interesting. I see that, I should just buy three singles versus the triple. That sort of thing that is just out there. I was so frustrated.
I'm the sort of person that if I recommend you a movie that I love and you don't love it, I take that very personally, I internalize that. I throw myself a pity party for a while. And so it just bummed me out so much that students weren't seeing that. And it felt a little bit unjust that they were forced to be with me. I had 180 hours with them, I couldn't kind of help them see that. I would try to do things. My technology at a time was a projector with transparencies. Your vets, your pros, your old timers like me know what that looks like and how that constrains the kinds of experiences students can have.
I would take pictures with a camera and try to bring them into my classroom by printing them out on a black and white printer on the transparencies. And I put that up there of this menu or whatever, and I'd show the students and it didn't resonate at all. And so I found myself really energized by the technology that is really commonplace now. It's taken for granted perhaps maybe less so in school closure where we're a little more keenly aware of the advantages we have in the classroom. But a digital projector changed my scene. And so that was when I was able to, whatever I could see out in my world, I would have a camera on me at all times and later a smartphone with a camera. I would just capture that menu. I would use my video editing skills from my hobby days as a video editor and create a basketball shot where you could see the first basketballs but not the later ones.
It's like I can bring those into the class. And I saw students, they were interested. This is like a different kind of math experience. I'm used to take out your notebooks, I am used to let's review the homework. I am used to here's the first of your examples. I am not used to my teacher saying I was out and about and I saw this, and I wanted to share this with you. It was so interesting to me, watch this one minute video. That was a different experience. And how to capitalize on that was the next part of the challenge for me, but I had their interest and I knew that mathematics could help resolve their question. How to best do that was a new challenge for me.
Jon Orr: That's always been top of mind for me too is to understand that progression of where that came from. And I think a lot of teachers that listen in on the podcast or teachers that we've chatted with or even our school districts and school boards. When they want to get into say teaching with 3 Act Math, they often wonder about how it looks, what does a lesson look like? We've actually had the pleasure of being in one of your sessions where you modeled it, which is I think so important when we're doing professional development.
But I think what I'm wondering now is when you started this process of developing this technique and using it with your students and then teaching it to teachers, and then now where you are now after many years of thinking about this process of lesson design, is there anything that has changed along the way? We saw you almost 10 years ago and many times since then. But if a teacher saw you now, what are some good tips about teaching with 3 Act Math that you've learned along the way? Because I know there's lots of teachers who are getting into it, but also are hesitant to teach this way, like we described before is I've got to stick to my curriculum. How do I work in? What's a good strategy or lessons you've learned along the way in this kind of lesson delivery.
Dan Meyer: I think I would just say that the way you teach now, whatever that way is, it is currently changing you. It is doing work on you personally, spiritually even if you want to go there. Teaching is a relational event. You're there with 30 to 40 students perhaps over the course of a year. Whether you want to believe it or not, it's relational and it's changing how you relate to people in the world. What I would say I was not prepared for, I just wanted to witness to math, I wanted to testify to math's power. I want people to be interested in math, I want to do justice to math was probably my first 10 or so years teaching.
Sorry, I taught for six years, but my first 10 years in education was that process. And I think what happened over time and what I hope will happen to teachers that do this work with you folks is that they'll come to love students as much as they love math. I did not love students when I started out. I had a really hard time with students in a lot of ways for reasons that I've alluded to in the past. But I also like students I saw as being the receptacles of my teaching. They were here for the event, but I did not need to know them.
And I think as I have grown older, lots of personal changes go on that have helped me to love people more. And as those happen, that changes my practice, and it can go in other direction as well, of course. So what happens is in the 3 Act Math structure, what it does essentially is it makes room for people to be brilliant. I'll use Danny Martin's term, brilliant, which he uses to describe black boys especially, black kids. And the students have so much brilliance when they walk in the door is what I've come to realize through this work.
And I've realized that when I have taken a moment and stepped back and not offered my brilliance right away, which is not to say never offer your brilliance, which is commonly what teachers will hear from advocates like you folks and me is like, "Oh shoot, I used to talk about math, I'm smart at math, I can talk about it well. I need to stop doing that, well now what do I do?" And I'm saying, wait on the explanation and put your students in a position to share their own brilliance. And that brilliance is going to be things like, "Oh, whoa, Meyer, were you allowed to go to the bathroom during this paper clip thing?" That's a brilliant observation, which I think at one point in my teaching I would categorize as a disruption, as a deviation from the plan that I had in my head about how this experience would go.
And over time, again, through age and personal development, I perceive that as an offering from a student of their own smarts, of their own brilliance, their own understanding of the world. And I've come to realize I need to throw a lot of love on that, encourage that and celebrate that brilliance in the student, which creates this relationship through which lots of learning can take place. I'm kind of losing my focus here a little bit. So once you get us back on track for a second, let me know what was gibberish about that.
Kyle Pearce: Rolling to the idea of Jon is still in the secondary classroom, I am out doing this consulting position with my district, but out of this secondary classroom. You are in the secondary classroom and something I see, and I don't know if it's just my own bias based on what's available to me, my own experiences. But I find that a lot of the elementary teachers, and here in Canada, here in Ontario in particular, elementary teachers would be K-8 and high school or secondary would be grade 9 to 12. And something that I tend to find is high school teachers love math, and they love teaching math. And you sort of alluded to that. And then you realize you're like, wait a second, it's about the kids. And I find that in elementary, I feel like there's maybe a little bit of different shifts.
It's like they love teaching kids. They don't love teaching language or love teaching math, they love teaching kids. And I feel like I was stuck in that journey as well. I was sharing what I loved about math and then I couldn't understand why the kids in the room didn't love it like I did. And I would argue my love for math was a little different than yours. I think you were much more creative and used the math in much more useful ways. I have zero, zero world records or Guinness book of world records.
Dan Meyer: Not too late.
Kyle Pearce: Not too late, I can still start now. But I think there's probably a lot of high school math teachers probably nodding to that going like, "Yeah, wow." I got into this for the love of math, and the challenges is a lot of the kids came into my classroom not for anywhere near that reason other than, "Hey, I had to come and do this." There might be that handful of kids. So I could definitely relate to that. Before we want to switch gears a little bit here, I'm curious, when you were making these attempts, and I know you were saying with the old overhead projectors where you're printing black and white photos on transparencies, didn't work nearly as well as now that you have these digital projectors you can actually share color vivid images, vivid videos.
Did kids gobble it up right away? A common struggle that we hear from educators when they're trying to slowly change. And as you said, it's not a switch, we don't just change this right away. It's a slow progression over time. But sometimes they argue that the kids push back on it. It's so out of their realm of like what math class is or what they've been told it's all about that they tend to kind of push back a little bit, do a little kicking and screaming. What was that like for you? Was it a smooth transition? Was it that you had to sort of really work to build that culture?
Dan Meyer: For me, the students I taught were students who had grade none, failed that math one or two times in the past. These were students who had, they had attachment to any existing definition of mathematics. So those definitions that serve them poorly and they felt stupid under those definitions. I had very little encouragement that I needed to do to offer them, "Hey, here's a different way to be mathematically smart." Can you estimate well? Can you offer your own early algorithms? Can you offer a question that's interesting? Contextual knowledge. They were in.
I do understand that there are teachers who teach students who have been very successful under certain definitions of mathematics or who if they have been successful, it's at least a known way to be, a known kind of cultural script around math. And those tend to take times to disrupt. And I would say one of the most undervalued tools that a teacher has at their disposal is their demonstrations of value in the form of grades or praise. Those kinds of currencies are what teachers can offer their students that very quickly in my experience have redefined what it means to be good mathematically or as a student.
And so if a teacher is trying something out or they're asking students like, check this out, I'm curious how you're thinking about this, let me know. And every other day it's like your grade is based on how many problems you've completed correctly divided by the total problems on assignment. That's going to be a tough realignment. But if that person says, "All right, this is grading for completion, participation. You were here, you wrote a thing down, you're offering yourself and you're in. Check the box." That then that might allow them to express the value in other kinds of new and novel ways. But it does take time.
Jon Orr: That's been our experience too is that students and teachers who put value on a certain type of assessment are going to get that pushback from students if they switch around how that lesson looks and not switch say assessment or evaluation. And I think that's some great advice. What you want to value in your classroom, you should be watching for, giving feedback on. And making it clear to the kids that that's what you're going to value above everything else and show them that. And I think that's where we've had the most success is ... Because kids will push back. We've had teachers talk to us about I get calls from parents because they're worried about their son's grades because of the way I'm teaching with this style.
And what we have said to them in the past is that kids will complain to parents and parents might call the schools if the student feels like they're not being heard. They're worried about their success. And it's our job as a teacher to help them understand their success and how they're going to be successful. And if a student is feeling that way, then they're feeling that way for a reason. So if you're kind of saying I'm evaluating this way, but I'm going to teach you this way. And I'm still not feeling like I'm being successful, then we definitely have to fix that. And so I think making the students feel comfortable in your classroom like you are going to help them, you're going to be helping them the most. And I'm doing that through this teaching style. And don't worry, we're going to get there. If they understand that you have their best interests at heart, there's going to be no complaints and no pushback. So I'm glad you mentioned that.
Dan, we'd like to switch gears a little bit because you are also the chief academic officer over at Desmos, which we highly respect, highly love the software and the work you guys are doing over there. So I wouldn't mind asking a few questions before we head off here about the work you guys are doing. And I guess to start us off with that kind of questioning is like, what exactly is a chief academic officer? I don't think I've ever heard of that before you said that's what you were doing over at Desmos. And maybe before we get into the chief academic officer, how did this partnership between you and the guys at Desmos and Eli kind of come out to beat?
Dan Meyer: Chief academic officer is something I just kind of needed for a business card to impress my mom so she can tell her friends that I'm not just a degenerate or that kind of thing. But basically I was doing my grad program in the Silicon Valley, Stanford right around the time that ed tech got real bad. Talking a lot of enthusiasm around prerecorded video lectures, multiple choice prompts that told students in which ways they were dumb and just awful uses of technology. Whereas I've been using technology in ways that were just very different to provoke curiosity and to develop problems in a cultured way. That kind of thing.
And so I was depressed about that. And at that time, Audrey Waters, shout out, she introduced me to Eli Luberoff the CEO Desmos, which at the time was a graphing calculator company. It was a fantastic web based graphing calculator, full featured and free. And so we just started to think about what activities and curriculum experiences would look like that were mediated through computers, like computers were more of a part of the experience. 3 Act Math, but the computer isn't just with the teacher, like everyone's got computers, how can that help teachers understand students better? How can that help students express their ideas more fully?
And so we spent, I think, a year making our first activity called penny circle out of patient of a 3 Act Math task. And then since then we've systematized our development, we're adapting a full curriculum now. That process has just grown and grown, grown. And yes, now we're creating a full curriculum for the middle years for now. And so my job basically is to, I'm in kind of a research and development role, thinking about, so what are these computer things good for? And what are our values here at Desmos, and what should we do next? And is what we're doing working? So I use my analytical tools developed at Stanford to think about the success of our program. Is this working or not working? How can we improve it? That's a day in the life plus getting to talk with folks on podcasts now and then.
Kyle Pearce: I think it says a lot about what Desmos is all about when you have someone in a role of chief academic officer because I think, going back to, you said when ed tech got really bad. There are a lot of ed tech companies out there that do not have someone who is really involved in education. They're really good at technology, and they're really good about making things really cool and fancy, and maybe even streamlined to the point where maybe things are a little easier. But at the end of the day, if you don't have that pedagogical practice at the head, I don't know how effective things can be.
And I remember vividly, I think it was probably the first time that I met you and did the whole fan boy thing and said how much 3 Act Math is amazing and how much it's changing me. And at the time, I had just taken on an iPad project and it was like, in my mind, I'm like, "I'm going to go paperless." And my blog, there's tons about it on there, I'm not proud of a lot of ... I'm proud that happened, I've learned a lot. But at the end of the day, it's like what I really learned was, wow, it is so easy to fall into that shiny object tech trap that I like to call it now.
I still have that stuck with me when I go into classrooms in my district. Teachers will say, hey, let's co teach a lesson or can we come in and try a math talk or can we do this or that? And they always say, "I'll book the iPad card." And most of the time now I'm like, "No, no, it's okay. No, we're not going to do that." We might use it for something later, but it's almost like I thought that tech was going to change everything. And I realize now that the technology itself is actually counter productive if we don't have that pedagogical practice in line like in those goals, those outcomes that we're after.
So if you could, you were talking about values at Desmos and trying to create a tech tool that is really helpful in the classroom. What about Desmos, and in particular like the custom activities and all of those pieces, what about that check some of those boxes for you when you are willing to open the door to bring technology into the math classroom?
Dan Meyer: Well, I just invite your listeners and yourselves to think about your values. And this moment of school closure where everyone's got less energy and less time for their professions is a good moment to think about, so what's most important to me? What am I trying to bring into my 'classroom' during this we're on Zoom or whatever it is? For me, what I'm most protective of in Desmos is the sense that math is a creative and a connected discipline. And same for math teaching. In math teaching, teachers should feel creative and they should feel connected as well.
And so whenever we're evaluating a new kind of feature, I'm asking myself, how does it preserve that sense of mathematics? Because I think it's unique for us, it's a unique way of thinking about mathematics. One that I hope values humans and value students. So examples of that are being concrete here. When we develop some of our activity building tools, we have a place where students can just type in text. And we don't grade that, we can't grade student text. And that's less unique now. But at the time, everyone had multiple choice and number response.
And the idea was if it went into another computer, the computer had to tell you if you were right or you were wrong. And we rejected that and wanted to instead get something creative from students. So we ask questions that make use of that text input box. We also by default will show students three other student responses after they finish their own submission. So there's the creative aspect, which texts allows you to be more creative in lots of ways. The connected aspect is that students see three other student responses and learn from those students and realize that they are connected in some social ways. We have a multiple choice tool, we added that maybe, I don't know, like 10 months into our activity building to give some sense of what it is we value. We created a tool whereby teachers could take snapshots of student thinking and then put that into a place they can present it to the class.
And that is an uncommon kind of tool for a tech company to build in large part because it depends on teachers having a lot of games, teachers being able to identify, what's my goal here? Which student responses are circling that goal in different ways? What's the right way to present these and what questions should I ask around them? It asks teachers to do a lot, but we're also going to be very powerful companion for teachers in that work. So I'm just trying to illustrate here how in my role I feel very protective of certain values around math and education technology and students and how we've hired a huge team of teachers that's been amazing. As a company, we spend a lot of time developing our values through lots of different kinds of whole company meetings. And having those values in place means that it guides the products we build I think in ways that I think are tangible to the teachers who use them. It's like this is very different.
Jon Orr: I highly respect that. You guys are making the tools for teachers. All those conversation tools that came out for the activities are just great to use in the classroom, so useful and necessary to run lessons the way you want to run lessons. If you're definitely trying to follow the five practices for orchestrating productive mathematical discussions, the work that Mary Kay Stein and Peg Smith have been doing. So it's been really great. And I really appreciated you saying trusting teachers. And I know that you guys over at Desmos headquarters have I think that written up on the wall above the whiteboard. Hopefully it's still there.
Dan Meyer: Don't know, haven't been there for a while. Haven't been out of the office in a stretch. There's like raccoons out there making that their home or something for all I know.
Jon Orr: Right. It's so great to see the work that you guys are doing, and we are wrapping up here. So Dan, I definitely want to thank you for chatting with us. And I know that you guys over at Desmos are still in this COVID-19 world we're living in, are helping teachers as much as they can. You guys are running webinars daily. Is that still going on?
Dan Meyer: Yeah, exactly. So you can Google for these kinds of keywords, but Desmos has free webinars daily because we realized that teachers were using our tools to help support their distance learning. We have developed some new features to support distance learning, which I don't know if you folks are getting emails now. But I'm getting emails from companies saying, "Hey, the stuff we made free this spring, it's no longer free for the fall," which is just a real heartbreaker to read. We made these tools and promised that they would remain free. And so like written feedback to students through the activity builder, co-teacher access, so your co-teacher can assess the same date. Stuff like that. So we keep our ear out, our ear into the field inaudible possible for the real needs of teachers.
Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff. Awesome. And that's fantastic, and I love that. Desmos, those tools are so awesome. We've actually been doing a number of distance learning related webinars. Some of them have been pop-up webinars. And when we share Desmos, like so many people, when we survey a room, everyone raises their hand when they're like, "Yes, I know of Desmos." But there's still many people that are unaware of all the amazing activities that are available in Desmos everyone thinks Desmos, graphing calculator and that's it. And then all of a sudden they see how awesome the activity builder is and how interactive it is. And like you're saying, it makes that process asynchronously or synchronously, it makes it such a fantastic experience. So we're going to continue to share that with our community, so we'll get those linked up.
And Dan, anything else you're willing to share with the audience? Where can they learn more about you, more about your work? And I know that you have an awful lot to say about some of the benefits and the things that we could be doing with distance learning. I know you have a recent blog posts you shared about some of the tools or the features that folks are requesting right now and maybe what we could do instead. Anything you're willing to share with them and we'll post them up in the show notes.
Dan Meyer: Yeah, yeah. You can find me on Twitter @ddmeyer, M-E-Y-E-R, my blog. inaudible I sell blog every now and again, got a mailing list. Cursor is up there, would you folks? One last endorsement, I don't know, right now we're currently in a very trying time, especially for black people in the US and even in Canada. Toronto's got its own kind of police violence with black people that are thinking about, I don't know if the world needs three white guys on a podcast talking about any of this, but I'm thinking a lot about Immani Gulfies. Her words recently that schools and classrooms are a site where the conditions that lead to police being violent with black people, those conditions are either exacerbated in math classes or they're disrupted in math classes.
I know that a lot of math teachers, all three of us, secondary math teachers, Jon you alluded earlier, we've love the math a lot, just let me teach me the math, leave the social stuff outside the door. But I think math classes is a unique place. I think my class is a really unique and that students often first learn like, oh, I'm stupid or they first learned I don't have value in math class where they're asked to follow rules that don't make sense that are set out by someone who doesn't look like them. And so math teachers, no way to opt out from this. We've circled this without naming it. And I don't know if we're the right people to name it, but we've circled these ideas, the pedagogies and curriculum that allows students to express the brilliance that they already have and their humanity.
And so I'm really excited to learn from educators of color and particularly black educators right now. Hema Khodia is someone who's in Toronto or at least Ontario who's just extremely brilliant. She's a fantastic Twitter follow. So let's not waste this moment, it's a terrible moment folks and we ought to be learning.
Jon Orr: Definitely, definitely. Thank you for saying that. It's something that we've been doing a lot of learning on. So the early learning that I did in my classroom was recognizing that I was making assumptions on students based on what they look like. Maybe it was subconsciously, maybe it was consciously, but it's something that I now definitely take into account that I might have these thoughts subconsciously like pushing me one way. But the fact that I know that it's possible that that's kind of going on in my brain is helping me learn from that and make sure that when I'm in the classroom with my students, I'm listening to them. I'm taking into account who they are as individuals.
And I think Dan that 3 Act Math and the stuff that you are doing and building has a huge role in allowing teachers to do that. You've just alluded to that it's that lesson type that will change the culture of your classroom and change how you see your students instead of just pupils that are in a room learning mathematics instead of learning about life or learning about the mathematics that you want to teach.
So I'm glad you brought that up, we're going to put Hema's Twitter handle in the links. We've chatted with Hema, we have an episode coming out soon with her. But yeah, we want to thank you so much Dan for joining us. And we're going to let you get going on the rest of your afternoon here because we are wrapping up on time, but we'll put all those links in there. And thanks so much.
Dan Meyer: Great chatting folks.
Kyle Pearce: We want to thank Dan Meyer again for spending some time with us to share his ideas and insights with us and you the Make Math Moments community. We have been looking forward to this episode for quite some time because as you'll know, we talk about Dan and 3 Act Math tasks quite a bit and how it has influenced both our Make Math Moments three-part framework and how we think and plan our math lessons.
Jon Orr: Like we mentioned at the top of this episode, using vertical non-permanent services is our thing. And if you are looking for a durable and easy way to create surfaces in your classroom, whitebook.com has you covered.
Kyle Pearce: Yes, Toby and Frank and their friends at White Book are an official Make Math Moments partner, which means you can grab a flip chart pack for 30% off by visiting whitebook.com/moments. That's whitebook.com/moments.
Jon Orr: Are you ordering for a school or a district and need more than a few packs, head to whitebook.com/momentsbulk for up to 40% off as well as any other gear they're providing.
Kyle Pearce: And order to ensure you don't miss out on new episodes as they come out each week. Be sure to smash that subscribe button on your Apple Podcast or your favorite podcasting platform.
Jon Orr: Also, if you're liking what you're hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague and help us reach a wider audience by leaving us a review on Apple Podcast and tweeting us at Big Math Moments on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Kyle Pearce: Show notes and links to resources from this episode, including transcripts, transcripts that can actually be read to you as well as downloadable PDFs of those transcripts. They can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode89. That's makemathmoments.com/episode89.
Jon Orr: We release a new episode every Monday morning. So keep an eye out for our next episode.
Kyle Pearce: Well, Math Moment Makers until next time, I'm Kyle Pearce.
Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.
Kyle Pearce: Hi-fives for us.
Jon Orr: And hi-five for you.
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