A while back I posted about a survey that I gave my students during the first week of school. My intent was to get information about their definition of mathematics and their sense of mathematical identity/agency. I am nearing the end of my research period, so I decided to go ahead and give them the same survey to see how/if things had changed for them over the year. I must say, I'm a bit skeptical about this sort of data that attempts to show a change in "x" because of "y." With that said, here are there responses before and after. I found it useful to compare percentages.



The new question I have is how to get more information from the students about this data. What caused certain changes? What caused other areas to remain static?

I would love any thoughts or suggestions. What areas does it seem like there might be some opportunity to discuss further with students?
I've been debating on whether or not to write about this for the past week, but I keep thinking about it so I figure I might as well record it somewhere. My class is in the middle of a unit on probability and last week we were working on this problem from the IMP Year 1 "Pig" unit:
Students played around with it for a bit and we even did some experimental trials before trying to tackle the theoretical probabilities...which is when things got tricky. They started listing all of the possible ways to get a sum of 2, 3, 4, etc. when rolling a pair of dice (pair of die?? not sure? well, you would say "pair of shoes" and not "pair of shoe" so I'm sticking with dice). Anyways, there was a big controversy about whether or not we should count 1+2 AND 2+1 as two different options or if we should just count them together as one option (which, in all honestly, I tried to intentionally bring out by giving students pairs of dice that were different colors).

The group that said we should count them as two different options ended up with 21 total possible outcomes and the following theoretical probabilities:

2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10            11            12
4.8%    4.8%      9.5%      9.5%     14.3%     14.3%    14.3%      9.5%       9.5%       4.3%        4.3%

The group that said we should count them together as one option ended up with 36 total possible outcomes and the following theoretical probabilities:

2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10            11            12
2.8%    5.6%      8.3%      11.1%    13.9%    16.7%    13.9%     11.1%      8.3%        5.6%        2.8%

Neither side was willing to budge, so I suggested we conduct a HUGE experiment with LOTS of trials across all three of my classes so that we could put the results together and see what conclusions we could draw. We did something like 3,500 trials...and here is what we found (experimental probabilities in brown on the far right):
In the end, there were a few people from the "21 camp" that decided to change their mind and join the "36 camp" but most people stuck with their original idea.

I was reminded of a quote from Les Steffe's work that I read a while back:
"A particular modification of a mathematical concept cannot be caused by a teacher any more than nutriments can cause plants to grow. Nutriments are used by the plants for growth but they do not cause plant growth."
I'm curious what you think and what you would do in this same situation. I let it go. I felt I did my job by helping students test their ways of thinking, not by telling them what to think.
A friend/co-worker, Andrew, and I hosted a workshop at Greater San Diego Math Council's Annual Conference this past weekend. We titled the workshop "Rich Mathematics Through Project-Based Learning," but rather than attempt to give a "here is how you do PBL" workshop (which fails to acknowledge that there are many ways to attempt PBL) we decided to use our own efforts at project-based learning as a lens through which participants, including ourselves, could examine the role of the teacher in fostering mathematical understanding. We each presented one approach to PBL, along with some student work and a dilemma that each approach seemed to pose about the role of the teacher in facilitating (or not?) the direction of student work/learning.

Our Two Approaches

Andrew and I decided to present two very different approaches to planning and implementing projects in our classes. I don't want to try and articulate Andrew's position too much on my own (maybe if he drops by he can leave some thoughts in the comments), but his basic premise was that a "content-based" project might be structured something like this:
Andrew's dilemma here was, given that he is attempting to move students from A to B, "what is the role of the teacher in facilitating that progression?" This led participants to attempt to deconstruct the process and put in steps that might direct student learning. Contrasting that, I have been interested in experimenting around with a more "open-ended" approach to projects. I visualize it like this:
This approach brings an entirely different dilemma, yet still one that largely revolves around the role of the teacher. Specifically, how does a teacher manage such divergent outcomes and how can the teacher facilitate mathematical connections/understandings for students?

A Closer Look at the Open-Ended Approach

We took an in-depth look at a specific example that I have used recently with students. First, I posed the following task for students:

                                    Create as many squares as possible using only 12 lines

Students played with that in groups for a day or so and we made some conclusions as a class. Then, I asked them to brainstorm as many questions as they could that they might be interested in pursuing based on the initial task. Here is what they came up with:

1. Can we create a rule/formula for the maximum number of squares based on the number of lines used?
2. How many triangles/rectangles/etc. can be created using only 12 lines?
3. Is there a difference between even and odd numbers of lines?
4. How many shapes can you create with 12 lines?
5. What would a graph of maximum number of squares vs. lines used look like? Linear? Exponential? Other?
6. What if by "lines" we meant "toothpicks" or "unit lines?"

I passed out some student work samples for participants to take a look at, with the prompt(s):
What do you notice?
What do you wonder about?
What evidence of the Common Core Practice Standards do you see in student work?

Looking for Rule/Formula (Question #1)

Lines as "toothpicks" (Question #6)

Even vs. Odd # Lines (Question #3)

How many triangles (Question #2)

I'm still left with LOTS of questions about what all this means and what my role is in all of this work with students. What are the benefits of this divergence? What are the consequences? How do I help them make connections within and across each others' work? Do I push students reach certain conclusions with their work that I know are still out there? Do I let them just end where they end? If I did push, would they really own the outcome? Would they "know" it? Those last two questions have been nagging at me a lot recently (perhaps more on that in a later post?).

I do think, however, that I am committed to continuing to try figure it out with my students. It is the closest I have come to truly freeing them to think for themselves, follow their own curiosities, make their own conclusions, and be honest with themselves about what is still left unanswered (versus trying to convince me that they know something that they think I want them to know). I mentioned in our workshop that our answers to some of the big questions (what is math? what is the purpose of math education? what is a project? what is the role of the teacher?) determine a lot of the small things we do in our class every day. I'm trying to let myself live in a state of constant re-evaluation with those questions. I think we need to in order to be fully present in the craft of teaching.
I am trying to make a commitment to myself to "write rough" here more often. My hyper-analytic personality leads me to think and rethink things so much that I rarely get to a mental space in which I feel like I can write with any clarity. So, this might be rough.

I attended the Creating Balance conference up in San Francisco last weekend, where Rochelle Gutierrez gave a talk about "Teaching Mathematics as a Subversive Activity." Her talk hit close to home for me but, even given it's closeness, still has left me thinking and rethinking her words this past week.

I appreciated many things about her talk, but mostly the critical way in which she addressed the sort of taken-for-granted discourses, or structures, in mathematics education that politicize the issue. Things like success, proficiency, achievement, and even what counts as mathematics largely have a singular meaning. As she writes,
"What counts as knowledge, how we come to 'know' things, and who is privileged in the process are all part and parcel of issues of power."
Mathematics education deals primarily with the dominant view of mathematics, the "discipline." With such a singular view we fail to recognize that, as Dr. Gutierrez points out, "mathematics needs people as much as people need mathematics." She writes,
"Most often, the goal in mathematics teaching is to try to get the student to become a legitimate participant in the community of mathematicians, thereby subsuming their identity within the currently sanctioned way of communicating in the field."
"Yet, when students offer a different view, they are seen as having deficient, underdeveloped, or misconstrued understandings of mathematics."
Dr. Gutierrez describes this as the "deficit model" which I see as very similar to Friere's "banking model." Attending to dominant mathematics can sometimes mean losing oneself at the expense of adopting another's way of knowing. As Dr. Gutierrez reminded us during her speech, teachers of mathematics are "identity workers." When we define mathematics narrowly and we impose that mathematics, we fail to recognize the mathematics of the individual, the student, the child. These are issues of identity (is my thinking mathematical?), of equity (who gets to participate in mathematics?), and of power (who benefits as a result of this?).
The point where the two axes intersect is a space Dr. Gutierrez has named "Nepantla." Borrowed from the work of Gloria Anzaldua, Nepantla is an Aztec term that refers to "el lugar no lugar" (neither here nor there). It was best described, I think, by Dr. Gutierrez to simultaneously mean "both" and "neither." I think it succinctly captures the paradox and tension I have felt in my research on student agency and identity. The discourses and structures in society require that we attend to dominant mathematics (access and achievement), yet I know there is an alternative in which moving away from dominant mathematics allows us to attend to the mathematics of students/people (identity and power). We can't do both but we also can't do neither. So, as teachers, we live in Nepantla...we live in tension.

It is from this space of Nepantla that new options, new knowledge emerge. To retreat to safety, to settle in the current ways of doing things because no clear alternative is present, is to choose to live in "desconocimiento" (a distancing, ignorant space in which we refuse tension). The alternative is to choose tension, to live in the messy space of Nepantla. Dr. Gutierrez describes curriculum as "both a mirror and a window." A mirror because it allows the student to recognize oneself in the work they do, but a window because it also allows them a new perspective on the world. I don't know that it's attainable, but I think we must choose to pursue the unrealizable philosophical ideal and live in messiness because to settle is to distance ourselves from knowing mathematics with our students.
I have been experimenting recently with different ways of having student curiosities drive our work together. In some ways it has been successful. In some ways it feels like I don't know how to do this well. I thought I'd blog about a few examples from the past two weeks and hopefully you all can help me sort this out a little more.


I put this up on the white board:

x/2 + 5

Me:         "Someone give us a number."
Student:  "7!"
Me:         "Ok. I heard 7. We are going to put 7 in for x in the expression on the board. Then, whatever we                 get as the result, we are going to put in for x. And then again...and again....and again. But we                     aren't EVER going to stop. What do you think is going to happen? Tell your partner."

They had various ideas, we tested them out, and made some cool observations. After that, I encouraged them to experiment with anything they were curious about. What happens if we change the expression? What happens if we change the starting value? What happens if we use two rules instead of one and alternate? There were lots of options.
  • Most students found something to pursue on their own
  • Most gravitated toward something that was appropriately challenging
  • The initial task was relatively narrow and was defined by me, not them
  • It was difficult to have students understand, respond to, and challenge each others' work because they were all working on something different


I posted about this problem before, but this is an extension of my thinking about the launch of that problem. For my first two classes, I gave students the following problem:
They seemed to rely on me to define the task for them and set parameters. So, for the third class, I put this up on the board:
I said, "For the next five minutes, everyone experiment with something you find interesting." They experimented for a bit and then I had them compare their activity with the rest of their group. There were a few different ideas. Most students hovered somewhere around the question of "which numbers can you create" but there was a lot of discrepancy about parameters.
  • Students were the ones engaged in "finding the task" and setting the parameters
  • It opened up the possibility for students to pursue questions outside of the one that might have been intended or suggested
  • It took a lot longer and was more difficult to facilitate
  • It felt like I was tricking students into asking THE question versus actually giving them freedom to explore their own questions
  • Students had a difficult time accepting the suggested parameters of a different group if they were not the parameters THEY saw as fitting (there might be some implications here about the questions we pose as teachers seeming unnatural to students?)


I put the following images up on the projector:
I gave students some time to examine the images and then asked them to brainstorm a list of questions that were raised by the images. We put a list of them up on the board. It was interesting that a lot of the questions were clarifying questions rather than problems to be investigated (Is the first one just a zoomed in portion of the second? What is the dot? Does the line always have to cross diagonally through the small squares?) It seemed like they were so used to asking about parameters, rather than setting them, that it didn't occur to them to just set the parameters and ask a solvable question based on them.

Eventually, we got a few questions with potential. Will it always hit the corner? How many times will it hit the sides before it hits a corner? Does it matter if the side lengths are odd or even? Is it possible to hit every grid line on the side BEFORE it hits the corner? Is it possible to end up in the same corner that you started in?

I suggested that each group: 1) pick a question they were interested in, 2) set their own rules/parameters and 3) get to work. It was interesting. Groups worked for a couple days and then things really stalled out. Because there were only four people (or so) working on a problem, there wasn't the same opportunity for them to bounce ideas off of other groups, for us to work through difficult things together as a class, or the same chance that someone might have an insight that led to progress for the whole class. We eventually proved that 1) it would ALWAYS end in a corner and 2) that corner would NEVER be the starting corner (assuming you launch at a 45 degree angle from a corner). So, from there, I suggested we all work towards finding a way to predict exactly which corner it would land in based on the rectangle size.
  • This was the closest I have come to having student curiosities drive the work; felt like students had a genuine opportunity to follow their own question
  • Students were engaged in questioning, setting parameters, exploring, and then adjusting their question or parameters if they needed to
  • Many students really enjoyed the freedom and creativity involved
  • Almost all students were engaged in mathematical activity
  • Students seemed to, initially, search for a more shallow level of depth than we usually accomplish as a class
  • Some students were very turned off by the ambiguity and openness
  • I didn't know how to bring things together or take it further when students were all over the place
  • As a result, I eventually defined a question for the whole class. Even though it evolved out of their work, it was still defined by me

Help Me Out...

I'm really interested by idea of using student generated questions but I feel like I need help on how to make it work. Things that I'm thinking about:
  1. I don't love the idea of tricking students into asking the question you want them to ask, but I also have trouble when students are all working on different things.
  2. I'm curious about the "initial event" that prompts student questions. Should I start small and well-defined and then move to open exploration (example #1) or should I start wide open and leave it wide open (example #3)?
  3. In most cases, I found it hard to facilitate student work. How can I get students to share work, challenge each other, and challenge themselves?
Mostly, I would love to hear about your experiences, questions, advice, or thoughts.
Something happened in my class last week that really got me thinking and reflecting. My class was working on this problem...
...when one of the students came up to the board and drew this...
If you haven't already, it might be helpful to think about the prompt and the student's proposal for a bit. Essentially, the question they were considering was "if we started with a perfect square, are all five of the divisions also perfect squares?" As you might have noticed, it is possible to draw it so that it in a way that makes you stop and think. There are a host of interesting things to discuss here including measurement, drawing versus abstraction, and others, but here is what interests me most at the moment...

Another student in the class responded to this student's drawing with a friendly counterargument. In essence, he provided the student with a logical argument about why these five divisions were not squares. The student who had drawn the proposal on the board seemed to recognize the fault in his argument and we kept discussing other cases. Then, on his way out when class was over, I overheard him say, "I wonder what size starting square would make my five case possible?" It seemed to me that this student was still searching for ways to preserve his mental equilibrium; hesitant to make a (perhaps?) necessary accommodation.

All of this got me thinking about the ways our minds work and the role of the teacher in working with students. It's fascinating to me how people work with their ideas. I'm convinced that any lasting change must come from a student. I use the example to make a larger point about our goals in working with students. In the context of this puzzle-like problem, it's pretty easy to suggest that we just keep letting this student play with other size starting squares; to keep letting him play with his own ideas. I know that in my own teaching, it isn't always as easy to preserve this play-like quality with things that we are "supposed" to teach. But to hold students accountable to those things (or what we perceive to be their mastery of that Mathematics) is an oversimplification of the workings of the human mind and a coercive, unjust position to hold in education. Because if we were to force this student to abandon his ideas about that square, to insist that his thinking is wrong, he would inevitably start to reject his own thinking as mathematical. He would inevitably start to surrender his own agency.

I think it brings up some interesting questions about the goals of education. I've been reading The Having of Wonderful Ideas recently (which I highly recommend) and I think Eleanor Duckworth puts it quite nicely:
"Many people subscribe to the goals of the it's-fun (interest) and I-can (confidence) types, but when it comes to detail, almost never does one see a concern with anything other than the-way-things-are beliefs. Lesson-by-lesson objectives are almost without exception of this type, despite the fact that general goals very often mention things like interest, confidence, and resourcefulness. This is, of course, because it is difficult to produce a noticeable change in any of these in the course of one 50-minute lesson. But notice that as a result all the effort is put into attaining the objectives stated for the lesson."
I'm not sure where all of this leaves me other than the realization that when we listen to kids and their ideas, working with students is challenging, perplexing, and a ton of fun.
I recently read 'The Child and the Curriculum' by John Dewey. The essay was written in 1902 and is still relevant today. The article is packed with passages that will make you think...
...but I have tried my best to summarize my reading and interpretation of it through direct quotes from the essay:

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, undeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these two forces.
Instead of seeing these two as an interactive whole, we often view them as conflicting parts, leading to what Dewey views as the "child vs. the curriculum" or "individual nature vs. social culture." Often, he argues, educational movements side with one or the other which leads us to polarized extremism. The two camps, as Dewey describes them:
One school fixes its attention upon the importance of the subject-matter of the curriculum as compared with the contents of the child's own experience...studies introduce a world arranged on the basis of eternal and general truth.
Not so, says the other sect. The child is the starting point, the center, and the end. His development, his growth, is the ideal...Not knowledge, but self-realization is the goal...subject-matter never can be got into the child from without. Learning is active.
Dewey's position is that these two extremes set up a fundamental opposition, left for the theorists, while any settlement on a solution will vibrate back and forth in perpetual compromise. His proposal is that we must refrain from seeing the experience of the child and the subject matter of the curriculum as opposing forces:
From the side of the child, it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains within itself elements - facts and truths - of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study...
From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as outgrowths of forces operating in the child's life...
Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience; cease thinking of the child's experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies.
Throughout the essay, Dewey refers to the psychological (of experience and process) vs. the logical (of finality and fulfillment). The two forces are similar to that of the child vs. the curriculum and he argues for "psychologizing" the subject-matter ("restoring it to the experience from which it has been abstracted"):
If the subject-matter of the lessons be such as to have an appropriate place within the expanding consciousness of the child, if it grows out of his own past doings, thinkings, and sufferings, and grows into application in further achievements and receptivities, then no device or trick of method has to be resorted to in order to enlist "interest." The psychologized is of interest - that is, it is placed in the whole conscious life so that it shares the worth of that life. But the externally presented material, conceived and generated in standpoints and attitudes remote from the child, and developed in motives alien to him, has no such place of its own. Hence the recourse to adventitous leverage to push it in, to factitious drill to drive it in, to artificial bribe to lure it in.
And his, perhaps, more action oriented response:
There is no such thing as sheer self-activity possible - because all activity takes place in a medium, in a situation, and with reference to its conditions. But, again, no such thing as imposition of truth from without, as insertion of truth from without, is possible. All depends upon the activity which the mind itself undergoes in responding to what is presented from without. Now, the value of the formulated wealth of knowledge that makes up the course of study is that it may enable the educator to determine the environment of the child, and thus by indirection to direct. Its primary value, its primary indication, is for the teacher, not for the child.
And Dewey's final message to the reader:
The case is of the Child. It is his present powers which are to assert themselves; his present capacities which are to be exercised; his present attitudes which are to be realized. But save as the teacher knows, knows wisely and thoroughly, the race-expression which is embodied in that thing we call the Curriculum, the teacher knows neither what the present power, capacity, or attitude is, nor yet how it is to be asserted, exercised, and realized.
I can't quite decide what that final passage means to me. At present, I take Dewey's words to be a reminder of the subjectivity and intersubjectivity involved with matters of the mind. As a teacher, I make observations of students working and I make inferences about their thinking based on my own ways of knowing the Curriculum. I must remind myself that these are my inferences and that I have no way of knowing the thinking an other because I am not them. At best, my pursuit as a teacher must be to work with them in a constant state of negotiation of meaning; not to direct their thinking until I judge it to be a mirror image of my own.

There are plenty of free downloads of the essay online. I encourage you to read it. Afterwards, come leave your thoughts in the comments.
Through my action research, I have become even more intrigued by task design and the effect it has on student discourse and agency. Of course, there are many other factors influencing agency (teacher expectations/actions, classroom and group norms, etc.) but I think task design might be the most powerful one. Recently, I gave some of my students copies of three tasks that we had done together in class (below) and asked them a variety of questions. They all had incredibly helpful insight and I have featured a few of the key quotes here.

Task A
(click to enlarge)

Task B
(click to enlarge)

Task C
(click to enlarge)

What task did you feel most successful with? Why?

"Problem A...I connected with the most because it was extremely hands-on and I got to just go with the problem in any way that I chose and I didn't feel limited."

"Problem A...The way this problem is designed, there are several different ways you can approach it."

"Problem A...we definitely tore this problem apart. We looked at all the different possibilities, all the restrictions, we looked at a variety of theories and hypothesis, and we proved or disproved them. I felt successful because we created rules that we could use for any given triangle and it really helped me to understand the problem more. B and C were good, but they were more, like, content-based I would have to say. But with problem A, there was no real content idea that you had to learn."

"Problem B...my main problem is I never know where to start and with this problem we were kinda given a place to start."

"Problem A...Unlike B and C, I was able to get started on this problem right away. With A, you can explore in whatever way you want to, so you are almost, like, being successful the whole time because there isn't really a right or wrong, you are just testing.

Which task did you enjoy the most? Why?

"Problem A...you're not just following some previous knowledge to solve the problem, you are going into this new, unknown problem that you have never seen before and tackling it in the best possible way. We just played around with it and I think that is the best way to really enjoy math....just play around with it."

"Problem C...I enjoyed this because it was really visual and you could clearly see the diagonal lengths."

"Problem C...it was outside of my comfort zone. Even though we used Pythagorean Theorem it was still challenging and a new learning experience."

"Problem A...It bothered me that I didn't actually know how to start. It was fun to play around and see what you could do but it was like 'frustrating fun.'"

"Problem C...before this problem we were working on the Geoboard and playing with squares and Mr. Meyer came over and showed me a diagonal square. I had never even thought of that and it just opened my eyes and I started to enjoy it and I started just looking for all these crazy squares." Here he is actually referring to a problem we did before Task C.

"Problem B...I enjoy structure a lot. With Task A we were just drawing a bunch of triangles and my mind was, like, 'what?!?' were are the instructions here. I enjoyed B most because it was more straightforward and it was just, like, do this, do this do this...and that may seem boring to some people but to me it helps me understand it."

What is 'frustrating fun?' When does something become too frustrating to be fun anymore?

"It becomes too frustrating when I have tried everything I can do and there is no way to move forward. But, ever sense last year working with you, I have learned to not get too frustrated, to step back and think it over. There are still episodes of frustration, but nothing too bad."

"Problem B is way more frustrating to me than Problem A. In B, you have to find specifics like slope of the tangent line and average rate of change and, for me, if I don't know that one thing I get frustrated and just shut down. In Problem A there is no specific thing you need to find right here and right now, so it's less frustrating because I can feel confident in myself because every individual student is finding, like, their own personal thing compared to B where everyone is trying to find one thing."

"With Problem A, the frustration is with how far can we get. With Problem B, I got frustrated because when I got stuck, I didn't know how to go forward but in Problem A when I got stuck, I just tried something else because there were so many different ways to approach it."

"I think we are all mentioning when you feel like you are falling behind. We are really interactive with our groups and when you talk to someone else and they seem to be getting it and you don't you get frustrated with yourself. With math, there seems to be invisible pressure. Like, nobody is saying 'do it as fast as that person is' but you still feel it. But it depends on the problem because, like you guys are saying, with A you don't feel pressure at all. But with C, I'm not the person to just draw a bunch of triangles so after I drew like 5 triangles and I didn't find anything I kinda gave up...I'm not gonna draw like 6 pages of triangles."

A while back we took a vote and most of the class said they would be happy doing ONLY "POWs." Why is that? What is it about POWs that students like so much?

"I was kinda stuck between what I think would benefit me more for college and what I enjoy more. Like, Problem A is not gonna show up on the SAT. Personally, I just wanna do POWs but I don't know that we would be as prepared as if we also focused on content."

"I personally love POWs. There are no repetitive formulas that you have to do over and over and over again. I go more in depth with POWs than I would with other types of math problems that just use a formula over and over again."

"I like POWs because I feel extremely intelligent when I'm working on them. When you feel insignificant compared to others around you, you have a tendency to not feel important to the conversation but with POWs I feel like my opinion matters. In terms of college, I think it depends because I don't really feel like I need math for what I want to do in college. As a creative person, I enjoy POWs because they force you to think in creative ways and challenge your brain in ways you have never thought of before. When you have that 'a-ha' moment, there is really nothing like that and I never really experience that moment with Problem B. I mean, I eventually 'got it' and I was, like, now it makes sense but with Problem A I felt like I was doing something bigger than just math. It's almost like 'therapy math' in a way because you just feel really, really good about yourself."

"I really love POWs but I also love the structure and questions of the projects in class. But, like you said, I also love that 'a-ha' moment."

"I also don't really need math for my plans in college. Yes, there is some content that is helpful but with POWs we learn so much more than content. We learn to think outside the box and we have all these 'habits.' Other kids...when they're stuck, they're stuck. With us, we're, like, 'hey, we have other ideas.' We are learning things that, in my opinion, are more powerful than the content."

"There are some kids that really enjoy their content. So, if we were to create a math class like this for all schools I don't know if everyone would like it."

"What if we could have POWs based around content?"

"Well, we already kinda do that. Like the penny problem for instance. It is like one big POW with content built into it. I think all schools should have that."

"It boosts your critical thinking PLUS it gets that math content. And it boosts your confidence and independence."

In your minds, when are we doing 'content' and when are we not?

"I feel like content is when you are learning something new. With POWs, I don't feel like I am learning something new, I feel like I am using what I already know to explore a problem."

"I feel like we are always doing content, POWs or not. Like, in C for example, you had to use Pythagorean Theorem to solve for the diagonal. So, you kinda use content in POWs...just not as much as in the Penny of Death problem."

"I went to a traditional middle school and content, for me, was sitting in a class and taking down notes. Then studying for a test and trying to get good grades. But when I came here in 9th grade I had pretty much forgotten all of that content that I learned in middle school. I got a little sad and was, like, 'what did I work for?' and 'what did I gain?' Pretty much just note taking skills...and that's it."

"I feel like we are always learning things, but in here sometimes the content is kinda, like, hidden. Now that we are thinking back on it, I realize I did learn more about the Pythagorean Theorem. I guess sometimes I just don't have an exact name for what I'm learning. You learn something, but then you don't learn it's name....so you might think, I guess we just drew some triangles.

"Sometimes we are just doing work and until points it out you don't realize 'oh yeah, I did content.'

ME: "This is all so interesting to me. To me, content doesn't have to be something that is coming from a textbook or from some source. Anytime we are doing math together and we create a rule...that is content. Doing math together IS the content. It's not like we need to create something that already exists in order for it to be considered a good use of our time."

To me, that is the difference between A and B. In A, because this isn't in a standards list somewhere, I feel OK about just giving you this problem and saying 'let's see what happens.' You all created some interesting rules and those rules are pieces of mathematics that you have created. With B, this is designed to get at a specific thing that does exist. From my perspective, that is more limiting. There is one right thing and, like, if we don't get that one right thing we haven't accomplished the goal."

Do you notice a difference in how your group functions with POWs versus other types of problems?

"It depends. In both scenarios, sometimes a person will latch onto something quickly and have a piece figured out."

"I can see a clear shift when we are doing content-based problems versus POWs. There are people who get it and people who don't. Another student and I will still be figuring something out and the other part of our table is like, 'done...we got it.'"

"With content, our table is usually split. But when we are working on POWs, we all work really cohesively. We have all these different ideas that everyone is throwing into the mix and from that 'idea throwing' you come up with this great new idea that we have all created together. And with content it's more like 'this goes to this.' With POWs like Problem A, we had all these different approaches and they were all correct."

"With POWs, even someone is struggling with math will put their idea out there and then we will combine them all together to create this cool hypothesis that we can just go and test. It's really cool to see everyone putting their ideas into this giant pot and we just see what happens."

"I think group work is a lot different when we are doing POWs than content. With content their is one answer and one solution....there isn't really a lot of in between. With POWs everyone usually has something different that we just pile together to create a central answer. I think POWs are a lot better for group work."
I use "Problems of the Week" (or POWs) with my class every week. As far as I know, the Interactive Mathematics Program authors coined the term, but the problems themselves are usually well-known (?) puzzles from the history of mathematics. Students have always responded well to these types of problems...even students that don't always respond well to other types of tasks in the classroom. This has always been interesting to me, but it has really come onto my radar since I started my action research on habits of mind and agency. It has led me to believe that the tasks we use, teacher expectations about student outcomes, and what we value as teachers all have pretty powerful effects on the preservation of student agency.


In 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions, Margaret Smith and Mary Kay Stein provide a useful table for sorting tasks by cognitive demand (see below). In particular, they outline two types of "higher-level demand" tasks: "procedures with connections" and "doing mathematics."
I have become really interested by the difference between the two. I have included two tasks below that I used in class recently. The first is modified from an IMP textbook and is, in my opinion, "procedures with connections." The second is a "Problem of the Week" borrowed from 'Thinking Mathematically' which, in my opinion, is "doing mathematics."

Task 1
(Procedures with Connections)

Context: Students have been working on a unit problem about whether or not a penny dropped from the Empire State Building would kill someone if it hit them on the head. We dropped a ball from the roof of our school, modeled it, and found that this equation was useful.

Task 2
(Doing Mathematics)

Students are pretty interested in the unit question about the penny, but the second task was by far more popular and definitely engaged more students in a variety of ways. Today I asked my Seniors, "How many of you would be happy if the class was only POWs?" Out of about 25, all but two said that would like that. The two that said they wouldn't like it cited "preparation for college" as their reason for not wanting that.

I think there is a lot here about the set up and structure of tasks in relation to student agency, but I haven't unraveled that yet. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Teacher Expectations

In 'Task 1' above, I think it is clear to the student that this is a typical math problem designed to get them to understand a particular topic or concept. In other words, it is clear from the outset to them that they are expected to get to a certain place by the end of the task. It has given them something external to value themselves against. Now, all of a sudden, if they understand it they are smart and if they don't they are not smart (I'm hypothesizing here about what the task is implicitly saying to students).

In 'Task 2," the situation is much different. The problem is pitched like a puzzle. There is a clear question, but the solution to that question is not the end of the problem. The problem ends (potentially) when students create a piece of mathematics to describe what they are noticing. I think this makes things a lot different. This task isn't designed to get students to understand something specific. It is designed to get the DOING mathematics and thinking mathematically. There is no pressure here. I don't feel like I need to hold everyone accountable to something. We can just think together and wherever we end up....that is where we will be.

What We Value

Standards and teacher expectations put pressure on students to 'know' certain things on a specific schedule. When we (teachers/curriculum/whomever) set this finish line in advance, it changes a learning environment. It becomes about measurement and judgement. I would just much rather put the priority on student thinking, student confidence, and student agency.

I think we should ask ourselves..."Why teach math?" I can't help but think that a lot of the things students 'learn' in school will soon be forgotten. What they might remember, though, is what our classes and teaching taught them about themselves. I want students emerge from high school trusting their own thinking and having confidence in their ability to figure things out. I'm beginning to think that sometimes the tasks we choose and our expectations for students might get in the way of that.
My grad school advisor keeps telling me that I need to write more about my thoughts and observations in the classroom for my action research project. I figure I might as well multi-task here and just blog about my research along the way.

We are now a month into the new school year, but I collected some data from them during the first week that I never had time to analyze and write about. There are some interesting (but not all that surprising) things that I found. First, I gave them a journal prompt that asked:

In math class, what is the role of the teacher and what is the role of the student?

Of my 72 students, 79% identified the teacher as the authority (status and epistemic), the student as passive recipient, and/or the role of school as knowledge transmission. Here are some of their responses:

Role of Teacher

All of the following are pieces of direct quotes from students:
Grade the work
Impart knowledge on the students
Teach the material
Share their knowledge
Teach clearly
Help solve problems and do them over and over again
Pass on knowledge
Teach math concepts so they are simple and easy to understand
Show examples of a problem
Teach students how to do the assigned work
Give and deliver information

Role of Student

All of the following are pieces of direct quotes from students:
Listen to the teacher
Take all the knowledge the teachers have to offer
Learn from the teacher
Take notes
Do worksheets
Pay attention
Study diligently
Be quiet
Absorb the knowledge
Absorb information
Learns what the teacher teaches

To be honest, this wasn't surprising...but it is alarming. It's alarming because the way in which we teach math inevitably (and implicitly) simultaneously teaches students things about themselves as mathematicians. Here is the evidence (responses from beginning of the year survey):
80% of my students think they can't do a math problem unless I tell them how to do it first...
85% think they need to memorize things...
and about half of them don't think they can create mathematical ideas, formulas, and rules.

All of this is further support that, as I cited in my research proposal (bold added for discussion here):

1. "our classrooms are the primary experiences from which students abstract both their definition of mathematics (Schoenfeld, 1994) and their sense of self as an active participant in the authoring of mathematics (Lawler, 2010)."

2. "Identity is a model for self-direction and, as a result, a possibility for mediating agency (Holland et al., 1998). Many students have established their identity as receivers of knowledge, with no active role in creating or critiquing mathematical claims. As a result, their sense of agency is surrendered. Research supports the view that such environments cause students to surrender their sense of thought and agency in order to comply with the procedural routines outlined by the teacher/authority figure (Boaler, 2000). Signs of this include negative attitudes towards math, lack of connected knowing, and the belief that mathematics is absorbed rather than created."

I'm interested in the idea of agency (mathematical and otherwise). I'm interested in the hidden curriculum in our classes and how it impacts students' definition of math, students' formation of self, the mediation (or perpetuation) of status/race/economic/power issues, and the recognition of their own ways of thinking and being mathematical in the world.