Another way to smoosh two Bell Curves together

Previously, we looked at one way of combining two Bell Curve (i.e. Gaussian distributions) together to make a third — multiplication.

There are other ways to do this, though. The best known (and as far as I can tell, the most important) is convolution. So, here are two Gaussian distributions, and what you get when you convolute(?) them:

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 1.28.42 PM

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 1.28.55 PM

Formally, this process takes two functions — f(x), g(x) — and then produces a new distribution defined in the following way:

(f * g)(t) = \int_{-\infty}^{+\infty}f(x)g(t-x)dx

I have been struggling with this idea for several months, but just a few days ago I made some progress.

Convolution is often described as a blurring process — it blurs one distribution according to another one. That’s how Terry Tao describes it in this Math Overflow post:

If one thinks of functions as fuzzy versions of points, then convolution is the fuzzy version of addition (or sometimes multiplication, depending on the context). The probabilistic interpretation is one example of this (where the fuzz is a a probability distribution), but one can also have signed, complex-valued, or vector-valued fuzz, of course.

I have a hard time seeing the “blurring” in the images above. To really see it, I have to change the initial functions. For example, consider the convolution of a Gaussian and linear function (with restricted domain). Before convolution…

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 1.46.17 PM

…and after.

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 1.46.27 PM

Just playing around with the calculator a bit more, here is another before/after pair.

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 2.05.54 PM

Screenshot 2019-08-25 at 2.06.14 PM.png

I first learned about convolution a few months ago, and it was explained to me in terms of blurring. The thing about this “intuition building” metaphor is that I’ve been sitting with it since then, and it hasn’t helped me feel comfortable with it at all. It was only last week when I came across the far more prosaic meaning of convolution that things started to click for me. Because besides for whatever blurring convolution represents, it also represents the sum of two independent random things.

(What follows is lifted from this excellent text.)

Suppose you have two dice, both six-sided, both fair. There is an equal chance of rolling 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 with each die — a uniform probability distribution. P(x) = \frac{1}{6} whether x = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

What would the distribution of the sums of the rolls look like?

The calculations start relatively simply, but check out the structure. For example, this is the calculation we have to do to find the chances of rolling a a 3:

P(1)P(2) + P(2)P(1)

The chances of rolling a 4:

P(1)P(3) + P(2)P(2) + P(3)P(1)

The chances of rolling a 5:

P(1)P(5-1) + P(2)P(5-2) + P(3)P(5-3) + P(4)P(5-4)

The chances of rolling n:

P(1)P(n - 1) + P(2)P(n - 2) + ... + P(n-1)P(n - (n- 1))

So! Using the language of summation, we can summarize this process as so:

P(sum = n) = \sum P(k) \cdot P(n - k)

We might as well take the last step of calling this process “convolution,” because it’s just the discrete version of the integral from above!:

(f * g)(t) = \int_{-\infty}^{+\infty}f(x)g(t-x)dx


Mathematically, there is a lot of interesting stuff to continue exploring with convolutions. Not all convolutions are defined, there’s a connection to Fourier transforms (another thing I don’t understand yet), there are discrete problems to solve in the text (what about different dice?), and so on and so on.

Briefly, though: why didn’t the blurring metaphor help me? I don’t think it’s such a mystery. It’s because while blurring is easy to understand, that image was totally disconnected from the underlying calculation. Why should that complicated integral be related to the process of blurring?

Now, I have a better understanding. (Blurring X and Y sort of is like finding the probability of X + Y.)

In school math, a lot of teachers bemoan their students’ lack of conceptual understanding, and it’s generally felt that procedural understanding is more obtainable. In my life as a learner of mathematics I usually feel it’s the other way around. When I read articles in Quanta Magazine or books about mathematics I haven’t yet studied I can usually follow the exposition but am left feeling a bit empty. Yes, I can follow the metaphors (“Imagine a number as a little bird; those birds fly together in flocks; but what happens when a bird has children? do they rejoin the flock? where? etc.”) but what have I learned?

Popular exposition of mathematics is maybe more difficult than exposition of other subjects simply because of the necessity of some kind of metaphor that brings the abstract to life. What results is a kind of understanding, but something far from the whole thing, and the best mathematical exposition also leaves me feeling jealous of those who can reach past the metaphors and grasp the thing itself.

That’s not to say that math exposition for popular audiences isn’t valuable — it is! Most people aren’t ever going to reach that deeper, unified understanding. I certainly won’t, most of the time! But for convolution, I feel a step closer.

Gaussians are making Gaussians

Let f and g be Gaussian distributions.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 12.01.12 PM.png

Go ahead, add them. You don’t get another Gaussian distribution.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 12.04.42 PM.png

Well, of course not. They don’t have the same mean. So set the means equal.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 12.06.48 PM.png

That’s no better. The sum of f and g is still very much not Gaussian.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 12.07.58 PM.png

So, that’s no good. But of course it failed — just look at those visuals!

What about multiplication? Here’s what the product of two Gaussian distributions with equal means looks like.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 12.10.36 PM.png

That looks much better!

In fact this is true: the product of two Gaussians distributions remains a Gaussian function. The only proofs I know of dive into some algebra — I like this one — but the core idea is that multiplying exponents is additive. That’s what keeps it all in the Gaussian family.

So consider two Gaussian functions, one with a mean \mu and the other with a mean at 0 (for a touch of simplicity):

f(x) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}\sigma_f} e^{\frac{x^2}{2\sigma^2_f}}

g(x) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}\sigma_g}  e^{\frac{(x -\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2_g}}

Their product will look like this:

f(x)g(x) = \frac{1}{2\pi\sigma_f\sigma_g} e^{\frac{x^2}{2\sigma^2_f}+\frac{(x-\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2_g}}

Making common denominators and adding through:

f(x)g(x) = \frac{1}{2\pi\sigma_f\sigma_g} e^{\frac{\sigma^2_g x^2 +\sigma^2_f(x -\mu)^2}{2\sigma^2_f\sigma^2_g}}

Might as well expand that exponent a bit and summarize:

f(x)g(x) = \frac{1}{2\pi\sigma_f\sigma_g} e^{\frac{(\sigma^2_f +\sigma^2_g) x^2 -2\sigma^2_f x \mu + \sigma^2_f \mu^2}{2\sigma^2_f\sigma^2_g}}

And then you can divide the numerator and denominator by (\sigma^2_f +\sigma^2_g) and you’ll end up with a quadratic trinomial in x. You can always express that quadratic trinomial as (x - M)^2 somehow or another.

(Brief but important nit-picky note: that would make the product of two Gaussian function, but the scale factor on the left side of the expression is off, so it’s not a Gaussian distribution. You’d have to scale the product of two Gaussian distribution in order to get another Gaussian distribution.)

Is this useful? Is this significant, in some way? I don’t know. Apparently it’s useful in applying Bayes’ Theorem, but I know nothing about that.

One thing I do know is that it makes for some fun visuals.

Screenshot 2019-08-23 at 1.09.12 PM.png

Sure, education is weird. But it’s not THAT weird.

(What follows is a rant. I have moderate confidence about my impressions, but I have made no attempt to test or challenge them. I mostly wrote it because it was fun to write, and I think it’s true.)

There are a lot of people who will tell you that education has a particularly awful culture, but to prove it they’ll point to things that are totally common in other industries. This amounts to a weird kind of exceptionalism about education — a belief that our culture is uniquely troubled.

An example is those godawful edu-celebrities. They get these enormous (and enormously lucrative) platforms and use them to spout a mix of meaningless platitudes and outright lies: Message of the day — Good teachers enter the classroom; Great teachers leave it. (I’m no good at making these up, but @EduCelebrity is fantastic at it.)

The thought goes like this: isn’t this a sign of the particularly awful culture of education? Isn’t the ascent of these blablas only possible because…and now you get to pick whatever it is you feel is uniquely wrong with education. We would never treat (and now pick some other job)(probably doctors or lawyers) like that!

But this misses the point entirely which is that these bozos are coming from the business world into education.

This would be a particularly good moment for me to pivot to stories from my time working in industry buuuuut my only grownup work experience is in teaching. So let me speak as a studious observer of the “Best Seller” table in bookstores and say that all this leadership and self-improvement stuff is coming to us directly from business and management. Edu leadership-speak is derivative of business-speak.

(If I have had no direct encounters with business culture, I have even less experience with the self-help world. As a NYC Jew let me say that it sure seems like the self-help world is rooted in evangelical church culture. That is an observation worth very little, obviously.)

But what about the garbage tech that suffuses education? I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the rest of the world is not exactly untouched by garbage tech.

OK, OK, but what about our particularly dysfunctional relationship between research and teaching? Can you imagine a group of doctors who routinely rejected medical research? That would be malpractice!

Two responses. First, yes, teachers ignore research. This is a whole thing, and it does seem possible to me that the research/practice gap is particularly wide in teaching. (For a lot of reasons.)

But also, the idea that medicine has a particularly simple relationship between research and practice ignores the gap between medical researchers and medical practitioners. And there is such a gap! I’m not saying that it’s as significant as the research gap in education — it’s not — but it’s there, and for many of the familiar reasons: not all research is relevant to practice, practitioners have values that are sometimes in tension with research, the profit motive pollutes the information environment, institutions have needs that aren’t identical to those of individuals.

Why should you believe me about this? Again, this would be a useful time to point to some particular expertise I have with medicine but, again, no. Although I’m not entirely making things up. First, there are many pieces one can read about the gap between evidence-based medicine and what happens in practice (such as this).

Second, I’ve asked doctor friends about this. In particular, I asked doctor friends how widespread anxiety about the research/practice gap is in medicine. And the answer I got was that it’s not nearly as pervasive as it is in education — not at all — but it’s there. Probably it depends on the specialty.

This weakens my point a bit. There clearly is a difference between education and other fields. But it’s not that different.

I understand that this is the loosest category of argument. I’m making an argument pertaining to quantity; but that’s just what I’m doing. Education is not SO special, it’s not THAT different, it’s LESS plagued by a uniquely bad culture than many people inside education think it is.

So, why is it that people frequently lament education’s particularly awful culture?

It would be tempting to play the exact same game I just finishing critiquing. In no other field do people say their field’s problems are unique! Education is the only profession that laments how unusually problematic it is! Do DOCTORS spend all day talking about how flawed their profession is?

But you know what? Everybody spends time complaining about their work. It’s your god-given right. Go ahead, exercise it! But in moderation.

Reading Research: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Interleaved Mathematics Practice


The study is called “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Interleaved Mathematics Practice” and that’s exactly what it is. It’s one of the most readable studies I’ve read in a long time — the writing is crisp and there is a minimum of technical concepts. Not all papers do a great job bringing up potential concerns or counterarguments, but this one definitely does.

The short version of the study is that interleaving practice — basically, every problem is of a different type than its neighbor — was very effective at helping kids do well on a test. This is a trendy thing in teaching, but probably for a good reason. First (and most importantly) it seems to work. Second (and still importantly) it’s entirely uncontroversial; nobody seems particularly committed to the status quo of blocked (i.e. repetitive) practice. Third, it seems pretty easy to pull off.

Of the many things I loved about this paper, I especially loved the very clear definition of interleaved practice and why it might work. Here’s what they say:

  • Interleaved practice is necessarily practice in choosing a strategy, not just practice executing that strategy
  • It’s also necessarily spaced practice, in other words rather than practicing the same skill three times on Monday it’s better to space it out over three separate days.
  • It’s also necessarily retrieval practice, which gets tossed around a lot but is used clearly by the authors to refer to practice recalling stuff from memory rather than getting the info some other way (like checking your work on the previous problem).

They also are not nutty; they get that blocked practice has its role. “Interleaved practice might be less effective or too difficult if students do not first receive at least a small amount of blocked practice when they encounter a new skill or concept,” they write. That seems correct.

(This is where the authors slot the literature on replacing practice with example or mistake analysis — alternating between examples and practice is for that initial experience, where a certain amount of focus on the same thing is absolutely necessary. The literature on worked examples and interleaving is sometimes seen in tension but I think this is probably the neatest way to resolve it.)

One question I still have is what this all looks like over the course of a unit, or over several weeks. The study required teachers to use nine worksheets over four months. So that’s about two days a month that are mainly devoted to review in this study. That seems doable. Except that I’m also the sort of teacher that uses a lot of low-stakes quizzes. How does that fit into the interleaved practice scheme? Should I count an interleaved quiz as interleaved practice — or maybe not, because of all the ways in which a quiz doesn’t give kids a chance to get help with problems they don’t remember how to solve?

I’m left with questions about how frequently to do a mixed review day, if I wanted to do things like they did in the study. But I think once every two weeks is sensible and doable, and I’m going to try to actually do that this school year.


I’m reading this paper for kicks, mostly, but also with an eye on practice. I’ve known about the supposed benefits of interleaving practice for a long time but haven’t been entirely successful figuring out how to pull it off in practice. I teach four different courses and have limited bandwidth for making my own materials. I agree with the authors of this paper: “The greatest barrier to the classroom implementation of interleaved mathematics practice is the relative scarcity of interleaved assignments in most textbooks and workbooks.”

I promise I’ll get to the paper in a second, but first a quick note about the sentences that follows-up the one I just cited. They continue: “There are some remedies, however. For instance, teachers can create interleaved assignments by simply choosing one problem from each of a dozen assignments from their students’ textbook. Teachers might also search the Internet for worksheets providing ‘mixed review’ or ‘spiral review,’ and they can use practice tests created by organizations that create high-stakes mathematics tests.”

It’s entirely typical of research to never getting around to studying those remedies in any systematic way, but shouldn’t they? The work of translating something like interleaved practice into something workable in the classroom requires a lot of creativity. I know that there doesn’t seem to be anything interesting about that first suggestion (“choosing one problem from each of a dozen assignments from their students’ textbook”) but I find myself with questions: would these teachers be rewriting the problems? how do they choose the skills? do they do any blocked practice, and do they have a way of keeping track of which problems they’ve already used? are there clever ways of reducing the workload?

I get it, that’s just not what this study is. I have absolutely no issue with this study (which impressed me). But wouldn’t it be nice to read something as systematic and careful as this about the remedies that make translating this research feasible?


The goal of this study was to test the feasibility of interleaved practice in realistic conditions. So, unlike a lot of research on practice, this was happening in classrooms. Actually, a lot of classrooms: 54 of them, all 7th Grade.

This study was preregistered, and you can tell, because the authors have a rationale for every single decision they made. It’s refreshing and entirely clear.

You’d think this would make the paper a tedious read, but quite the opposite, it felt like you were listening to actual humans explain their actual thinking. Honestly, I found it sort of gripping. I loved all the little touches.

They used statistical software in advance of the study to decide that they needed around 50 schools to trust their results. They ended up recruiting 54 schools, and paying them each $1000 to participate in the study (I wonder where that $1000 went) and then they had to recruit teachers. Each of the teachers got tossed $1000 also, and honestly that feels like a sweet deal. I would very much like to be paid $1000 for some researchers to write worksheets for me. They seemed to have no trouble finding 7th Grade teachers who wanted in on the study.

And now, for my favorite detail from the study:

“We recruited teachers who taught a seventh-grade math course described by the school district as Honors Advanced Grade 7 Mathematics.”

WOAH, huge red flag here. So this whole study was just with the top of the top of math students in the district?! I can’t believe that they would do this…

Oh, wait.

“Although its title suggests that the course is selective, it is the modal course for seventh-grade students at most of the schools in the district.”

So, this is hilarious. Some 7th Graders take Algebra, and those who failed the Florida assessment are in a different course. But the totally normal, typical 7th Grade math course in this district is titled Quantum Honors 7th Grade Category Theory for Gifted Youngsters. Florida sounds amazing.

They recruited only teachers with multiple sections of 7th Grade math. The researchers did the obvious thing of randomly assigning one of the teacher’s sections to the blocked practice condition and the other to the interleaved practice. (If you’re asking yourself how the researchers handled teachers with an odd number of sections, this is the paper for you.)

The worksheets seemed a nice size: 8 problems each. But then again they would be, because the authors did a pilot study with two experienced classroom teachers they have long-term relationships with. (This paper really is charming the pants off of me.)

They did thoughtful things that should help any skeptical readers. My favorite: both conditions had the exact same final worksheet before the exam. That way, no group of students could be said to have not seen the skills in a long time. (Otherwise, because of the nature of blocking, it would have been a couple months since students saw the practice problems for the first skill. Also this closely resembles the status quo practice of interleaved practice before the exam — though the gap of 33 days between review and test would be unusual in pretty much every class.)

Here’s the figure explaining what they did:

Screenshot 2019-08-19 at 8.52.42 PM.png

(Notice how the interleaved practice worksheets have a bunch of filler skills that are mostly blocked? And the blocked practice have a bunch of filler worksheets that are mostly interleaved? And that only the colored “core” skills were assessed on the test? That’s because the researchers didn’t tell the teachers what the experiment was about and wanted to make sure they couldn’t figure it out on their own. Clever!)

I complained above about wanting to know the practical details of designing these worksheets, but honestly it’s not that big a deal. It’s true, I’d rather not spend my planning time making new worksheets…but, yeah, I’m frequently making new worksheets during my planning time. The bigger question for me is about keeping track of how many skills there are in the course and all that, which I find logistically sort of complicated in the heat of the school year.

Given the particulars of my teaching situation, maybe the best thing to do would be to formally schedule a practice day every two weeks, and a quiz on the other weeks? Maybe on Fridays, which are breakneck and hectic for me?


Whenever I read a paper I always feel like I owe it to myself to try to understand the trickier statistical points. This is inevitably embarrassing because I don’t understand these things well yet. Oh well.

First up:

“In order to determine the necessary number of participating classes, we conducted a priori power analyses with Optimal Design software. Each analysis assumed a two-tailed test with an alpha level of .05 and a two-level, random effects model for a continuous outcome variable. We ran numerous analyses with varying values of effect size and intraclass correlation, all of which were more conservative than the values obtained in the pilot study. In every scenario, power exceeded .95 with 30 classes (15 per condition).”

There are a lot of concepts here and I’m barely fluent in statistics-ese. I will try to translate the above paragraph into plain English-ese:

If we only used 10 schools, this study would have been underpowered. In other words, our study wouldn’t necessarily be large enough to detect the effect of the intervention, even if interleaved practice does help. So we used software to help us decide how many schools would need to be part of this study.

What went in to that calculation? First, we put in the standard “alpha” (which is our threshold for how unlikely it would be to get our effect randomly). As is (for better or worse) standard in many studies, that’s 0.05. (I don’t entirely get this yet, but power calculations are done in reference to the acceptable alpha. More here.)

We also had to consider the fact that even though our results are framed in terms of the test results of individual students, the intervention is taking place at the classroom level. Since students are grouped in classrooms we can’t just think of each additional student in the study as contributing equal amounts of random variation. Fundamentally, what protects us against making error is the chance for students to randomly deviate from each other — if their performances are correlated because they have the same teacher, we get more of a chance that we’re not seeing a real effect at all.

Instead, we told the software how correlated we thought the results of students in the same classroom would be. With that info we played around with the software to see what we would need to design a strong study. After tinkering with different inputs into the software, we settled on 50 classrooms.

(I found this example useful for helping me understand statistical power more clearly.)

Next up:

“Because of the cluster design, we further examined test scores by fitting a two-level model (students within classes) with HLM Version 7.03. Using restricted maximum likelikhood (REML) we first estimated a fully unconditional model to evaluate the variability in students’ scores within and between classes. To assess the difference between conditions, we used REML to estimate a two-level random-intercept model. Tests of the distributional assumptions about the errors at each level of the model (normality and equal variance) did not reveal any violations.”

My attempt:

The way we’re thinking about the results here is that there is an effect from interleaved practice, but this is an effect on the classroom. Then, within that classroom, there is random variation from the students .

Groups are funny things, statistically speaking. Sometimes one group can outperform the other but there is a tremendous amount of variation within the group. Suppose that we only looked at the classrooms to decide that interleaved practice was more effective — wouldn’t it still be possible that a lot of the students in the interleaved classroom did worse? And wouldn’t we want to know that?

Put it the other way, though, and we only looked at the students who received the interleaved treatment as one big group, ignoring the classes they came from. If they outperformed the blocked practice group, shouldn’t we worry that maybe this came from just one of the classes? Maybe a bunch of the classes couldn’t handle the interleaved condition at all, but there was one teacher who pulled it all together?

So what we do is we use two different models. First, we treat everyone like individuals and see how much variation there was with regard to scores on the test. Then, we look at the classrooms for the same thing. Finally, we combine the between-student variability into the classroom correlation.

We used a magic formula called “REML” to do this.

I tried, really, I did. One last effort:

The level-2 class model included a dummy variable for condition and 14 dummy variables for teacher effects. Before examining the main effect of condition, we evaluated the potential interaction between teacher and condition and found not statistically significant interaction effects, p>.05. We then tested a main effects model that evaluated the effect of condition, controlling for teacher effects, and we found a significant effect of interleaving (p < .001).

OK, I can’t do this one. Does this just mean that they checked to make sure there was no significant relationship between who taught the classes and the test scores? So that the interleaved practice results aren’t the result of perhaps a few stronger teachers ending up with more of the interleaved classes randomly?


I was recently hanging out with some teacher friends, and they playfully told me that I was a bit of an academic troll to Jo Boaler. But I have hidden this criticism at the bottom of the post, so you can forgive me for connecting this paper to another little critique.

I had raised some questions about this paper of Boaler’s, titled “Changing Students Minds and Achievement in Mathematics: The Impact of a Free Online Student Course.” The paper records an experiment, but it has a lot of things that made me nervous. Perhaps most mysterious is this very fishy table:

Why did 200 more students end up in the control group than the treatment? Why doesn’t the paper mention any of that, not even a tossed-off explanation? A possibility, though not the only one, is that there was significant attrition from the treatment group because of the difficulty of the treatment. That could potentially impact the reported results. What if it was the most difficult to manage classes that dropped out of the treatment, while their other classes stayed in the control group?

I don’t want to go in depth on Boaler’s paper, which is about something else entirely. But I think anyone interested in reading research could have some fun reading this interleaved practice experiment side-by-side with Boaler’s piece, because they make for a really rich compare/contrast pair.

They’re both experiments, but one is carefully, carefully constructed, and it’s convincing because they bring up potential issues and have an explanation for every decision they made. This other paper contains lacunae that never end up explained.

Research is ideally designed with the skeptic in mind. You’re supposed to be able to read research skeptically. The whole point of research is to be able to withstand that skepticism and leave with your thinking changed, in some way. This is partly a matter of design, but it’s largely a matter of the writing itself which should be clear, generous to the reader, and eager to raise concerns.

So: not all experiments are created equal, and not all papers are either. This interleaved practice is a good one for both.

For terrific math puzzles check out Erich Friedman’s website

In the last few days of camp this summer, a big folder of puzzles got posted in the hall. In the folder was a collection of Erich Friedman’s Hamiltonian Mazes puzzles.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 at 8.09.22 AM.png

These puzzles are terrific (hard!) and it’s just one of many many different types of puzzles and problems on Erich’s site.

The whole site is a terrific snapshot of the old internet, with its generosity and quirk. I love the little personal nuggets Erich includes on his homepage (I’m nostalgic for homepages!):

I am a Libertarian and an Atheist. I consider myself a Feminist, and I’m a member of the ACLU. I have memorized the first 50 digits of Pi. I am an INTJ and I Juggle. I build card houses, and I’m interested in my Family Tree.

For the record: I am a Capitalist and a Religious Jew. I consider myself a Feminist, and I’m a patron of NYPL. I recently memorized the Largest Known Prime Number. I sometimes get Moody and Sad but I don’t Juggle. I’m interested in my Family.

I own the largest Puzzle Collection in Florida.

Really, lots of wonderful stuff on his site. In the past I’ve been more interested in theory-laden areas of math than puzzles and problems (I like my math how I like my philosophy) but I always have fun when I do find time for these sorts of things.

Like these square tilings. They’re gorgeous!


Anyway, a wonderful website. Enjoy!

What we’re debating when we debate “misconceptions”

Is ‘misconceptions’ a bad word? I’ve had the conversation about misconceptions a number of times, most recently when I wrote this post. Here is a bit from the conclusion:

We see misconceptions in children because it really is true that there’s stuff that they don’t yet know. Noticing this doesn’t have to be an act of violence — in fact, I don’t think that it usually is. Usually it’s like me playing with my son and noticing there’s stuff he doesn’t yet know how to do, even as my mind is blown because oh my god my son is into puzzles! When did our baby turn into a kid?

Is it good pedagogy to ask people who don’t already see their pedagogy as abusive to forswear from using words that they use all the time? Isn’t this exactly the sort of “intellectual violence” that we’re being urged to refrain from? Shouldn’t we start with the way people actually see the world, rather than asking them to use language that is not their own?

That excerpt did not convince anybody at all, but my goal here isn’t to convince. Really all I want to do is bring up something I learned about the constraints of this argument.

There are a couple people I’ve met who have flirted with the idea of cutting out all evaluative language from discussions of teaching, but it’s largely an unsustainable position. You can’t cut out value from teaching, and the thought that you can is a bad mistake. Even if you don’t talk of “misconception” you’re still in need of language to describe thinking that isn’t yet what it could be. Maybe there are no misconceptions, but there is thinking that is e.g. inflexible, procedural, memorized, additive-but-not-yet-multiplicative, trick-reliant, stage one, whatever it is you want to say.

Plus, the math education community very clearly want to be able to understand problematic language and ideas for what they are. We want to be able to call ideas or patterns of thought racist, sexist, colonialist, etc. That’s very different than the “all thinking is just thinking” position.

And so the discussion is only ever about what is particularly harmful (or not) about the term “misconception” and its popular usage. Though people frequently talk about the issues with evaluative language in general when discussing misconceptions, that argument just confuses things. We need to be able to talk about thinking in terms of what it could, even should ideally be.

So there are really just two questions that are relevant for this discussion. Is the term “misconception” particularly harmful, compared to other evaluative language? And even if the term is intrinsically fine, is it used in particularly harmful ways?

I’ve shared my answers, but I’d make the case that those are the right questions.

Quick direct instruction and interesting practice at math camp

Today is my first day of summer break, sort of. I spent the last six weeks working for a wonderful math camp where the teaching is so much fun.

My class is the closest that students come to school content during camp. It’s a fractions class that students get placed into based on an assessment. If the camp thinks that students could use more time working on fractions — that’s who I teach.

That said, the course content is tricky because I don’t want to simply repeat what they’ve seen in school. That would be boring for a lot of kids, and I’m aiming to approach familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. I’m trying to work on skills, but from interesting perspectives.

Here’s a one-two-three sequence from my fractions course that I think worked particularly well.

First, I ask students to think about visuals. This was a focus of the previous lesson, but I want to make sure every students has it at the front of their minds.

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 7.12.43 AM.png
Source for image is

I’m trying to give everyone a chance to figure out what fraction a piece is by multiplying. (“There are four pieces, this is divided into fourths, that would make sixteen in total.”)

I’m teaching this both because it’s a useful bit of visual fluency, but also because I want to use this as part of my direct instruction.

Next is the direct instruction. I’m trying to teach students a mental shortcut: if you’re dividing a fraction by an integer (e.g. 1/2 divided by 10 is 1/20) you can multiply the denominator by the integer because that’s simply making the pieces 10 times smaller. I use visuals to explain this.

This is a classroom poster with a version of my explanation. Below it is the next mental strategy I teach in the course. 

I immediately give students a few chances to try out this new technique on some mental math problems. (Below is my little cheat sheet — this is what I ask students, but I don’t give them this paper.)

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 7.12.57 AM

That’s the basics. But how are we going to practice it further? And how are we going to keep it interesting, and make sure students start using this technique in other contexts?

I then move to the third activity in this lesson, some mobile problems (designed by me on the EDC site). They’ve been carefully designed to give us a chance to use that mental shortcut we’ve just studied.

Screenshot 2019-08-13 at 7.42.39 AM.png

A lot of the lessons in my fractions course seem to follow something like this pattern: reminder, quick explanation, interesting practice.

What exactly is it that worked about this? I think this pattern of quick direct instruction followed by interesting practice is a useful one. Of course not every topic is amenable to quick direct instruction (some skills need to be taught in larger chunks) but some are. And after some quick “are we on the same page” questions, it was nice to follow it up with interesting practice. And what made it interesting? I think that it looked different than the direct instruction, but there was still the chance to use it frequently.

This is a way of engineering challenging classroom experiences around stuff that you want to just explicitly teach. I think a lot of people think of these things as incompatible, but they clearly aren’t. At the same time, for a lot of my groups during the year I am trying to make things more accessible — I’m not trying to make it more challenging.

Or maybe I should be? Maybe this pattern of instruction would work just fine in my school-year work. One issue during the year is that I’m much more cautious about whether the practice is actually going to help with the skill. There is a risk to practicing in a different context than instruction. It’s always possible that kids won’t make the connections, that it will be either too hard or students won’t actually practice the thing you thought they would.

So, I’m not sure whether this is something I’ve learned about teaching camp or teaching school or teaching math. Time will tell, I guess.

Q&A on Humanizing Mathematics

Do you like students and mathematics? 

Yes, definitely.

Do you want students to know that their teacher cares for them? Is curious and interested about their passions? 


Do you want to help your students understand what is beautiful and vibrant about mathematics as a discipline?

Yes. Of course I balance that with all sorts of other competing desires (they and their parents have goals too) but, in general, yes.

Do you like the phrase “humanizing mathematics”? 

No, I do not.

How about “math as a human endeavor,” with emphasis on “human”?

No, I don’t like that either.

That seems ridiculous. Do you disagree that math is something done by humans

Of course I don’t disagree — who else could be doing the math?

No no, that’s not the point at all. The point is that the things that humans do, we also do in math. Humans play, mathematicians play. Humans love beautiful things — well, so do mathematicians. Truth, Justice, Love: human values, and mathematical values too. 

Hey, did you read Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing?

Yeah, I totally did. But I still don’t like this way of talking about math or math teaching.

Are you just being annoying? Are you trolling?

I don’t think so?

So what’s your deal?

Is work human? Is understanding human? Is thinking human? I’m just confused as to what it means for students to think that math is non-human, or not done by humans (with emphasis).

Aren’t they doing mathematics in their classrooms? Aren’t they human?

But the point is students don’t think of mathematics as something they can create. Do students see it as something they can love? Can they seem themselves doing it outside of school? Do they see it as something that was just done by the INVENTORS OF MATHEMATICIANS in some distant past, or could they see themselves and people who look like them doing it?

Is that what it means to be human?

Come on now, of course it is!

No, really. Is the implication here that you’re only human if you are creating mathematics, not if you’re learning someone else’s mathematics?

Is this philosophy? I hate philosophy.

Don’t worry then, this is not philosophy.

Good. Humans are creative and enjoy creating things. I agree that you’re not somehow being not-human if you aren’t being creative, but being creative is to be fully human.

I disagree, and I think that’s a disturbing idea.


Really! Tell me this: is it a good thing to tell students that if they don’t end up in a creative line of work they somehow aren’t being fully human? That if someone is working as a home aide, an Uber driver, a warehouse worker, that they aren’t fully human?

I don’t think it’s awful to say that those lines of work are less creative and therefore less meaningful. Therefore less of an expression of one’s humanity. We should hope to prepare every student for creative, meaningful and (therefore) more human work.

I’m just not comfortable with it.

Another thing: are we sure that our mathematical values are really universal? I once wrote a piece about how in Ancient Greece there were two vibrant mathematical cultures: one that is all about play, love, the abstract, etc., and the other about algorithms, application, practical knowledge.

When we tell our students that true human flourishing in mathematics is all about the playful, beautiful, loving side of mathematics, do we alienate some students who (legitimately, it seems to me) are interested in using math for the sake of other things? I think we’re taking a narrow slice of the mathematical world and making a claim for universality when we slap it with the “human” label.

Wait, are you sure this is not philosophy?

I promise.

So you don’t like the phrase. Don’t use it — why are you making such a big deal about this?

First, I apologize if this sounds like a big deal. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

But I think this matters. Talk of “math as a human endeavor” is relatively new (to me) but the message behind it is not new. For decades, progressive math educators have been agitating for students to do a wider range of mathematical activities, and to thereby see themselves as creators (discoverers) of mathematics. When you step behind the new way of putting it, how different is this message from the message of: inquiry, discovery, creativity, doing math, math as a verb, and so on?

I don’t think it’s very different at all, this call feels familiar.

And so why not call it using the more familiar language? If it’s a call for doing certain things in class because they’re important, let’s talk about that. It’s clearer.

You’re missing the point, which is this new language of “human endeavor” is a chance to unify a bunch of different activities under a single value: humanity. Yeah, these activities and ideas have frequently gone together in the past, but this is a new way to unify them under a single header.

But what is that value, exactly? The valuing of humanity? What does that mean?

Sigh, we’ve been through this. It’s the idea that we want students to know they can be fully human in math class…

But that’s the thing! We’re taking this controversial package of views about teaching and saying, look, this isn’t radical. It’s just being human. You don’t disagree with being human, do you?

And of course I don’t! I love my students and I want them to be able to be served well by mathematics and school. I don’t know how to convince you of this through words — I really do care, a lot.

It may or may not be a good idea to teach for a growth mindset, to use certain routines, to give kids a chance to explain themselves, to give kids chances to act like mathematicians, to talk about different mathematicians, to share new research, and so on, and so on, and I really do many of these things. But my vision of humanity is big enough to realize that this is not what it takes for something to be a human endeavor.

You’re getting pretty worked up about something you don’t think is a big deal.

I’m sorry, it’s really a bad habit.

Are you going to get in trouble for saying this?

I really hope not.

Well, good luck to you!


How does this end?

I don’t know.

I mean the Q&A.

I know what you meant. I don’t know.

Should it keep going? This is getting weird and cutesy.

Alright, you hang up first.

No, you.

OK, we’ll do it together. One, two,..

Are you still there?

You didn’t hang up!

This is getting silly.

OK, I’ll just stop. Three!

This post is part of the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics.