Some of my assumptions for communicating about teaching

These all might be wrong, but I think some of them are worth exposing. Maybe you’ll help me see how I’m wrong?

1. When have something I want to say about teaching or learning, there is a temptation to coin a new word that identifies a new concept. I try to avoid this temptation.

Suppose, for example, that I get up at a conference and say “math should be sticky.” There are some risks. First, there’s the risk someone will spend a lot of time puzzling over what I mean by “sticky,” remember the phrase, and have no idea what I meant by it in context. (This happens often — people remember memorable tags but struggle to articulate what they mean.) Probably then I’ll start hearing people say that I believe that you should teach in such-and-such a way because it’s “sticky” when that’s not what I meant. There’s also a risk that my word will have connotations that I didn’t expect. (Oh, you think “sticky” is gross and bad? Oops.)

So as a rule — a writing rule, a speaking rule — I try very hard to only use words that I think everybody pretty much uses in the same way.

This is not easy, because (I associate this thought with Ilana Horn) the meanings people assign to seemingly clear words like “discover” in teaching varies a great deal. I might say “worksheet” and you might imagine “evil packet that kids work on in silence and struggle” and I imagine “a bunch of problems on a page that hit the sweet spot for kids, who are asking questions and talking together about math.”

So it’s not easy, but I do try. It helps to keep an eye out for words (like “worksheet”) that could be misunderstood, and to replace those with context and sentences that make it clearer what’s happening and what I’m imagining.

2. I try to avoid advocating for practices unconditionally. What I mean is that I never say “we should do this in class more!” without suggesting when it might be useful to do that in class. I’m thinking about this right now with worked examples. I think example-based learning is great and cool and fun, but I would never give a talk (I think) calling for greater use of examples in teaching. Instead, though, I would give a talk describing situations that especially call for worked-examples and teaching people how examples can be useful in that context. (Here are two: “examples as feedback” and “examples as models for really complex thinking.”)

Likewise, I try never to talk in general about teaching, or about teaching math in general. I try to stay conditional.

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These two things, I think, make communication about teaching easier. As a consequence, I think it ensures that nobody thinks that I mean something I don’t mean, and nobody thinks that I have solutions to many of their teaching problems, or a message that would revolutionize math teaching.

And, as a further result of that, what I have to say is less broadly meaningful, polarizing and also less popular. That’s the tradeoff, I think. Clarity for popularity.

Addendum: I have nobody in particular in mind with this post, but it was inspired by a lot of the tweets I saw from the NCTM conference. I’ll say that the “unconditional” thing was inspired by advocacy for a lot of the thinking prompts that don’t call for precise answers — numberless word problems, goal-free problems, estimation problems, notice/wonder, etc.

These are all incredibly useful, but (I think) far more useful when a topic is new to a student. So I think the general direction is that these more open prompts are great ways in, but you sort of want to call for more and more precision in your prompts as the learning progresses.

I was once talking to a friend who felt burned by Estimation180. Why, I asked. Well, she was trying to use it every day to improve her students’ number sense, but it hadn’t worked. She was disillusioned.

I’m not disillusioned. I know that Estimation180 tasks are useful in some situations and less useful in others. I have some thoughts about where and when they’re useful in my teaching. I try to stick to talking about that when I’m talking about teaching and estimation.

One thought on “Some of my assumptions for communicating about teaching”

  1. Once I had a class that spent 5 minutes debating an Estimation 180 task about toilet paper. The couldn’t reach consensus on something quite simple: if sheets of toilet paper A seem thinner than sheets of paper B, but the rolls are roughly the same size, do rolls of A have more sheets or fewer sheets than rolls of B? The stumbling block was — if A is thinner, than it must have fewer sheets, because “thinner” means “less”, right? When I realized that we couldn’t reach consensus on this point, it occurred to me that I must either be using Estimation 180 wrong (perhaps consensus is a bad goal — I should just step in and tell them some things?), or else the tasks were too hard for my high school students. I don’t know. They definitely didn’t fit in a 5-6 minute warmup for me. The big problem was that the misconceptions that surfaced in the estimation task were not in any way connected with what I was covering in Algebra. And they needed to be integrated into class so the misconceptions’ errors could be really digested.

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