I can’t believe I’m out of the classroom AGAIN, but I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear and interact with Dan Meyer in his workshop: Intellectual Need in the Math Classroom offered by our local educational service district. So many good things today, but I did come away with one nugget that I’ll be ruminating on for the rest of the year (teaching life?!). Dan started the workshop by posing the question: How do we engage students in difficult mathematics? And he suggested the three biggest responses (by teachers and textbook companies) are:

- Make math real world
- Make math job related
- Make math relevant

We then took a humorous look at these “suggestions” in action: interesting covers (because we want the kids to like what we have to offer, so we’re desperate), have career interviews or real-world connections dropped into the middle of a unit (make the work seem related to job acquisition), try to have real-world problems (do something to a real-world picture to link it to the math we’re studying – but almost lying to the kids?) or try to take an uninteresting problem and re-work it to try to connect to what kids might relate to (but does an image of Starbuck’s coffee make the problem about exponential growth any more engaging?).

In Dan Meyer fashion, he offered a Dandy Candy Video and activity (which can be found at 101Questions) to look at strategic moves to engage students at the beginning of the class. And through the debrief of our experiences, we revisited the question: How do we engage students in difficult mathematics? And Dan’s answer is:

- Start a fight
- instigate an intellectual (or emotional) fight
- get them arguing with each other and you
- use student answers to get their opinions out

- Turn the math dial up slowly
- start with their everyday experience
- make the problem vague and bring in the math as needed
- have students guess high and low answers, best and worst, etc. along the way
- slowly add vocabulary and layers of “math” to the experience
- you can always add to their experience. You can’t subtract what has been done. So think before you give the “math” component

- Create a headache – to provide the “aspirin.”
- ask questions to get the students to think more deeply
- ask student to describe how to do something without the math tools – they’ll “beg” you for it eventually, if you don’ violate #2
- for example, ask students to describe a precise location without a precise tool (grid system.
- in the Dandy Candy example, ask to determine “the best.”

- challenge their thinking to the next level: more precise, more efficient, best way

It was an invigorating day, with lots of conversation and pushing on our everyday practice. I really appreciated Dan’s disclaimer that you don’t do this every day – you’ll burn out quicker than a flame in a hurricane (my analogy). He suggests only one of these kinds of activities per unit. Lure the students to the mathematical water through an engaging and meaningful activity, but then its okay to provide direct instruction as needed to develop skills and sense-making activities to develop concepts. I have always believed balance between activity-based instruction and direct-instruction makes for the most productive and growing classroom.

I’m always thrilled to talk with other educators to learn new things and today provided that opportunity for me. It was a delightful and fruitful day.