A Call to Substance, First Interview with Dr. William Schmidt

Schmidt BookcaseIn March of 1998, during the inaugural year of The Math Projects Journal, we had the unique opportunity to publish our interview with Dr. William H. Schmidt, of the University of Michigan. At the time, Dr. Schmidt was the National Research Coordinator and Executive Director of the U.S. National Center which oversaw participation of the United States in TIMSS. The results of the TIMSS report directly led to the developement of the Common Core 20 years later, which is why Dr. Schmidt is nicknamed “the Godfather of the Common Core.” He is also widely published in both journals and books on mathematics education.

We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schmidt again about the rollout of the new curriculum. Before we post the current interview, we thought it would be valuable to reprint what Dr. Schmidt had to say in the early years of the research. He emphasized focusing instruction on conceptually understanding and higher order thinking skills, rather than on methodology. This is an important message now more than ever with so many untested techniques and ideologies being promoted widely on the internet. This message heavily influenced the trajectory of MPJ‘s lessons and my own classroom teaching. I hope it does the same for yours.

MPJ: Can you give an example of a model lesson from one of the top achieving countries, either Germany or Japan, which are the focus of the videos?

Dr. Schmidt: If you look around the world, there just isn’t a single way to teach that is dominate among the top achieving countries. Some of them are very didactic, lecture-oriented classes. Some of them are like the kind that you see in the Japanese tapes. If teachers know their mathematics well, they can be just as engaging through a lecture format, as they can teaching as the Japanese do. It is very clear to me that there isn’t one way to do this. Instead, the more analysis that I do, the more I believe that there are some principles involved here that just might go across countries.

MPJ: What is the common thread?

Dr. Schmidt: I think the common thread that makes for the top-achieving countries is pure, honest-to-goodness mathematical substance. If the teachers really know and understand the mathematics, then they bring that to the students, through whatever means they know best. Also, a large part of this idea is to develop this stuff conceptually and not just algorithmically. I think many people misunderstand the Japanese videos. It is not so much the methodology, as it is the mathematics. You watch those lessons and the instructor really understands the mathematics, engaging those students in more ways than we do in this country.

MPJ: So, if a teacher were to do a dog-n-pony show lecture with drill-n-kill practice, and do it well, would it work?

Dr. Schmidt: The dog-n-pony show lecture, yes; the drill-n-kill, no. That’s what I said about there being some principles. I think the common element is a clear understanding of the subject matter and then going through it much more conceptually than algorithmically.

MPJ: Can you give us a model to how to teach math conceptually rather than algorithmically?

Dr. Schmidt: A U.S. lesson typically starts out with the algorithm. For instance, there is the example in the videos of a guy teaching geometry. He says to the kids, “Here are two supplementary angles, one is thirty, how much is the other?” A student says, “a hundred and fifty.” And the teacher says “Good, now why is it that?” And her response is, “Because they are supplementary.”

Instead, conceptually, you could show them that if they measure a straight line, it’s always one hundred and eighty degrees. Then they realize that if they put a line anywhere its going to cut it into two parts. That’s conceptual; you start with understanding why, so if you forget the stupid name, supplementary, and you see a line with an angle you’ll know what the other one is. That’s the difference.

MPJ: How is a strong conceptual understanding of the mathematics developed among teachers?

Dr. Schmidt: It comes from two sources. In some countries, they must major in these fields. The other thing we don’t think about is that they are products of their own systems. For instance, Japanese teachers don’t necessarily take more mathematics at the university level than we do. But look at what they already know before going to the university. They are already ahead.

MPJ: In regard to the things that our readership is looking at, active learning, projects, manipulatives, do you have any models from these other countries, or that you think could be done here?

Dr. Schmidt: You don’t find very much of that anywhere else. They seem to be uniquely American inventions, especially the cooperative learning. We asked teachers how much they use groups, and it’s pretty much nonexistent. We are too much into the methodology in this country, and we miss the substance. We start talking about small groups and manipulatives and it just becomes process. Therefore, the substance behind it gets lost in the shuffle. And for a lot of these ill-prepared teachers, that’s what they grab onto because that’s what they understand.

MPJ: We hear that the US teachers assign more homework and spend more class time dealing with homework than the top achieving countries.

Dr. Schmidt: The dominate activities in the U.S. lessons were reviewing homework and doing seat work. One thing that was startling is that the typical American lesson had only 10 minutes or less of instruction.

MPJ: What role does homework play in other countries?

Dr. Schmidt: It varies a lot. Japan doesn’t give a lot of homework, but the kids study for the next lesson. There’s a difference, of course. Studying is what you do at the university, and homework is what you do in grade school. But Japan is unique. Worldwide, homework and seat work are still the dominate activities. I think if you do that and you do it well, and develop the topics conceptually, it can work.

MPJ: Is this a curriculum issue instead?

Dr. Schmidt: It is the core issue, but just putting that in place by itself wouldn’t work. You have to help teachers teach in ways that engage kids.

MPJ: So, that is something that teachers could start doing today. We could focus on engaging students and developing topics conceptually?

Dr. Schmidt: That is my point. We must start paying much more attention to the subject matter and teach it more conceptually and less algorithmically. And that is why we are in a catch-22. The Japanese teachers grew up in their system seeing math developed conceptually, no matter what they learned at the university level. For our teachers it is a lot more difficult; they have to break out of a mold that they’ve been put into. But I think that is something that teachers can do — Get off the algorithmic side. Don’t just give an equation and when a kid asks why say, “Because that’s the equation.” Try to get them to understand what lies underneath some of this stuff.

MPJ: It seems that, chronologically, you are suggesting a lesson should move from concept to algorithm to application.

Dr. Schmidt: A lot of the lessons that we’ve seen, like in France and such, start out with an application as a motivator. An example is a science one about transformers. They started out by looking at a map of the city and looking how electricity would flow. This got them hooked on the issue, then they hit them with some good hard science about the transformer. That’s very often how it happens: hook them with some kind of application, then take them into it conceptually, let them flounder — that’s where I think what the Japanese do is a good idea — let them talk about some of their ideas, then give them an algorithm, a formula and a few examples. Whereas we typically start with the formula with a few sentences about it, and then have them do worksheets.

MPJ: The report states that American textbooks cover too many topics, yet they typically have only fifteen chapters.

Dr. Schmidt: That is mistaking the notion of what a topic is. The definition of topic has to do with the substance of the mathematics, and when we defined it that way, the measurement across all these topics is not how many chapters are in each book.

MPJ: Can you give us an example of four or five topics?

Dr. Schmidt: Congruence and similarity, three-dimensional geometry, linear equations, and fractions. We actually tested 44 topics and determined how many of these topics were in any given textbook. Our 700 page books address about 35 topics. The Japanese, on the other hand, spend half of the eighth grade year on congruence and similarity alone, and their gain in that year is higher than in any other country. The dilemma I have in telling you what to do is that the teacher shouldn’t decide which five to ten topics should be studied in a year. It only works if somebody coherently lays this thing out as to what needs to be done.

MPJ: Do you have any last things to add?

Dr. Schmidt: People still think that there are general things a teacher should do, like cooperative learning. That’s what people push. We push all the things that have nothing to do with subject matter. I’d like to challenge the notion that there is a single way to do things. If you listen to the ideological left, they say that there is only one way to teach. And the data just do not support that. Among the top achieving countries you cannot find one dominate way of teaching. On the other hand, the ideological right are calling for “the basics.” Yet, the latest analysis shows that the United States, through 8th grade, does average or above average in all the standard arithmetic skills. This is not the place were we are hurting the most. That is all we teach. That is what’s wrong, we never go beyond the basics.

If I wanted to become rich and be an advisor to schools to jack their scores up, I know how to do it. We have certain areas of math that we have the international comparisons on. I can tell you the seven items that we are the weakest on, and if schools just did something in those areas, we’d go up in the international rankings. None of those areas is anything that we would consider the basics.

MPJ: What are those area of weakness?

Dr. Schmidt: Measurement, error analysis, geometric shapes, perimeter, area and volume, congruence, similarity, vectors, geometric transformations, and three-dimensional geometry. These are not the basics.

MPJ: Tomorrow, our readers will not be able to change the textbooks or create national standards. What can a teacher do in the classroom today that will model the type of change that you and the TIMSS report call for?

Dr. Schmidt: That’s a tough question, because most of what I have argued is, based on the data, these really are systemic issues. However, the data also shows that how we teach is as important as what we teach. Teachers should challenge students with more mathematical substance and develop the ideas more conceptually rather than algorithmically.

Stats Are Like A Fist Full Of Worms

wormsAlgebra is like an ox. It does a lot of work for us, obeys our commands and remains very predictable.

Geometry is like a puppy. It’s fun to play with, doesn’t ask for anything other than your attention, and doesn’t promise anything other than that in return.

Calculus is like a horse. It is gorgeous to watch when it runs, exhilarating to ride and takes us places we have never been before.

Statistics are like a fist full of worms. They wiggle around and are hard to get a hold of. They live underground, so you always have to dig deep to find them. Once you get one, you don’t know what to do with it other than stick it on a hook and cast it out into the ocean in hopes that it brings you back something useful.

Get to the Core of The Core

apple coreThe Common Core curriculum can basically be summed up in the following sentence:

Teach your students to THINK and COMMUNICATE their thinking.

Thinking and communicating are the 21st Century skills. Many people believe that the skills of the future involve the competent use of technology. While it is true that using digital tools in school and the work place is the new reality, it is actually the proliferation of technology that makes thinking and communicating imperative in the infromation age. When all the knowledge of humankind is available at anyone’s fingertips, memorizing information becomes far less important than being able to construct, evaluate and apply it. You can Google information; you cannot Google thinking.

So the core of the Core truly is Thinking & Communicating.

To make my case for this, I would like to pose that the following equation

6 + 4 + 4 + 8 = 22

be adjusted to

6 + 4 + 4 + 8 = 21

Before you start shouting that everything you have read on Facebook about the Common Core is true, let me declare that I am using this equation simply as a teaching device, not a true mathematical statement. You will understand what I mean after I present my evidence.

6 Shifts

Let me start my case that the core of the Core is Thinking & Communicating with the 6 Shifts, which are best represented by the following document found at Engage NY.

6 Shifts

In essence, these shifts are redefining rigor. Old school rigor was defined as sitting quitely taking notes, and completing long homework assignments in isolation. The new school definition of rigor envelops the last 4 shifts on the list: Fluency, Deep Understanding, Applications, and Dual Intensity. The rigor is now placed on the students mind instead of on their behind.

The shifts are also calling for balance. Dual Intensity insists on both procedural fluency AND critical thinking by the students at a high level. It is not about dual mediocrity or about throwing the old out for the new, but a rich coupling of both mechanics and problem solving.

Therefore, I make the case that:
                     6 Shifts = 21st Century Skills,
which are to
                     Think & Communicate.

4 C’s

Another list that is framing much of the Common Core dialoge is the 4 C’s. Resources for this list can be found at Partnership for 21st Century Learning (p21.org).

4 C'sThese C’s redefine school…

The old school definition: A place where young people go to watch old people work.

The new school definition: A place where old people go to teach young people to think.

… and they redefine learning.

The difference of old school vs new school learning can best be contrasted by the following images of the brain.

Brain Chillin   Brain Build

The image on the left shows a passive brain that just hangs out as we stuff it with esoteric trivia. The image on the right shows a brain being built, symbolizing its plasticity. We now know that when the brain learns, its neurons make new connection with each other. In other words, learning literally builds the brain. The 4 C’s  claim that this building involves the capacity of the students’ brains to Critically Think, Communicate, Create and Collaborate.

Therefore, I make the case that:
                     4 C’s = 21st Century Skills
which are to
                     Think & Communicate.

4 Claims

Smarter Balance creates it’s assessments based on 4 Claims. (I teach in California. PARCC has 5 Claims that can be condensed to the same 4 Claims as SBAC.)


4 Claims

Notice that Claims #2 & 3 are explicitly stated as Thinking & Communicating, which also overlaps with two of the 4 C’s. Mathematical modeling is #4, which will be discuss later. I want to point out here that Claim #1 reinforces our idea of Dual Intensity.

There are two important notes for teachers about this first claim. 1) It says Concepts and Procedures, not just procedures. The students need to know the why not just the how. 2) The Procedures alone account for about 30% of the new state tests, so if we continue to teach as has been traditionally done in America, we will fail to prepare our students for the other 70% of the exam which will assess their conceptual understanding as well as their abilities in problem solving, communicating and modeling.

Therefore, I make the case that:
                     4 Claims = 21st Century Skills
which are to
                     Think & Communicate.

8 Practices

If you open the Common Core Standards for Mathematics, the first two pages of the beastly document contain a detailed description of the Standards of Mathematical Practice. Then at the beginning of each of the grade level sections for the Standards of Content you will find 8 Practices summarized in the grey box shown below.
8 practicesWhat do you notice about the list? Indeed, these habits of mind all involve Thinking & Communicating. While the content standards change with each new grade level, the practice standards do not. With each year of school the students are expected to get better at these 8 Practices. Notice that the first half of the list has already been included in the ones discussed previously: Problem Solving, Communicating Reasoning, Constructing Viable Arguments and Modeling. A case is often made that the other four are embedded in these first four. However one might interpret the list, “Memorize and Regurgitate” is not on there.

Therefore, I make the case that:
                     8 Practices = 21st Century Skills
which are to
                     Think & Communicate.

The Sum of the Numbers

So, as you can now see, the 6 Shifts, the 4 C’s, the 4 Claims and the 8 Practices are all focused on the 21st Century Skills of Thinking & Communicating. Therefore, I can finally, explain my new equation …


    6 Shifts
    4 C’s
    4 Claims
+  8 Practices
= 21st Century Skills

then 6 + 4 + 4 + 8 = 21!

None of these numbers represents a list of content, because the content changes brought on by the Common Core, while significant, are actually no big deal in the long run. A few years from now we won’t remember all the fuss regarding Statistics and Transformations, but we will all spend the rest of our careers learning how to teach kids to Think & Communicate.

I rest my case.

Interview: Dan Meyer on Using a Ladder to Clear a High Bar

Pic MeyerDan Meyer is as close to a celebrity that a math educator can get. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for making math nerds look cool. He deserves his rock star status because he is an amazing presenter, a thought-provoking writer, and an ingenious creator of math tasks.

Behind all the hype, though, is some serious substance. Dan’s ideas are akin to the spirit of MPJ’s lessons in that they seek to engage students in meaningful mathematics, and aspire to teach them high-level cognitive skills. Dan’s methods, though, have a unique twist that challenges teachers’ thinking. I know he has given me a great deal to think on. I hope he does here for you as well.

From what we read on your blog, you are about two things: 3-Act Lessons and the Ladder of Abstraction. Let’s start with 3-Act Lessons. Give us the gist of what they are and why they are an effective tool in teaching math.

Dan Meyer
We make huge promises to kids about the power of math in their world. But then we give them these problems that don’t do justice to that power or to the world they live in. Three-act math uses photos and videos to show students a more faithful reproduction of their world and a more faithful reproduction of the practices of applied mathematicians.

MPJ has preached for over a decade the need to have students create their own mathematical models (abstract generalizations). Describe your Ladder of Abstraction and how it applies to teaching mathematics.

Dan Meyer
The process of abstraction is extremely powerful and also not something I understood intuitively until I was a long way out of my secondary math education. Basically, whenever we turn the world into a table or an equation or a graph, we LOSE something. People don’t run at a constant rate. The Earth isn’t a perfect sphere. But we abstract a runner into a linear equation and the Earth into a sphere because those abstractions are perfect ENOUGH to help us answer questions. That’s an important part of modeling. Asking, “Is this model perfect enough?”

With so many teachers reliant on teaching from the textbook, do you have any ideas on how to get these practices used more regularly in classrooms?

Dan Meyer
I tell teachers what I tell myself: whatever you’re going to teach today, whether it’s pure math or applied math, make sure students have some NEED for it. A better need than “I don’t want to fail this class.” And I offer them techniques for provoking that need. I also offer teachers a homework assignment, an exercise like push ups, to get better at provoking that kind of need: take a photo or a short video and ask people what questions they have about it, if any. If they don’t have any questions, retake the photo or video in a way that provokes more questions. That homework assignment has been incredibly helpful in my own growth.

How well do your theories mesh with what is coming down the pike as the Common Core?

Dan Meyer
The modeling practice of the CCSS gets focused treatment in high school. I encourage all of your readers to study high school modeling (it’s only two pages) and ask themselves, “Are the ‘real-world’ problems I assign preparing students to clear this high bar?” Then Google “three-act math” and see if my work can help.

What do you intend to prove with your PhD research?

Dan Meyer
I’d like to understand how any or all of this translates to online education.

Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers

Sue bookcoverPlaying With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers is being published by fellow math blogger, Sue VanHattum of Math Mama Writes. In her book she “brings together the stories of over thirty authors who share their math enthusiasm with their communities, families, or students. After every chapter is a puzzle, game, or activity to get you and your kids playing with math too.”

Sue was kind enough to include an article I wrote, Textbook Free, as one of the chapters. I am honored to be included in a body of work that is best described by one of the authors as …

a collection of love stories because the authors, including yours truly, want to share something we’re pretty crazy about.  — Fawn Nguyen

In order to raise money for printing costs, Playing With Math has started a crowd-funding campaign. Contributions of any size are welcome, but $25 gets you a copy of the book. If you are interested in supporting the cause, please visit incite.org.

Sue VanHattum has assembled a marvelously useful and inspiring book. It is filled with stories by people who don’t just love math, they share that love with others through innovative math activities. Playing With Math is perfect for anyone eager to make math absorbing, entertaining, and fun. — Laura Grace Weldon, author of Free Range Learning

Let’s all help Sue make this terrific resource happen!

Dr. Jon Star Speaks HOT Heresy

Pic StarDr. Jon Star, of Harvard University, gave a mathematically blasphemous speech at the 21st Century Mathematics Conference in Stockholm, Sweden last year. The presentation was titled, Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology of Mathematics. His heretical statement was that mathematics does not teach higher order thinking skills; only the teaching of problem solving actually teaches problem solving. The Math Projects Journal has always preached the teaching of mathematical substance, or what is now commonly known as higher order thinking skills (HOTS), so we reached out to Dr. Star regarding his research.

The belief that just by learning math one gets critical thinking skills is also not well-supported by evidence.

You must know that your claim stating that math does not inherently teach critical thinking is very unnerving to the math education community.

Dr. Star
Just to be clear about my goals in the Stockholm talk, I was trying to argue the following:

First, the belief that math plays some sort of special and relatively unique role (as a discipline) in promoting what you refer to as HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills) is not well-supported by evidence.

Second and related, the belief that just by learning/understanding math, one gets critical thinking skills as well (e.g., two for the price of one, without explicit or even implicit attention to developing HOTS), is also not well-supported by evidence. Certainly in some instances this does happen, but it does not appear to happen in any widespread way for ‘typical’ students.

And third, given that we do want students to develop HOTS, rather than expecting/hoping that these just emerge as a natural by-product of learning/understanding math, it is essential that we think about how to explicitly promote critical thinking and problem-solving in what we teach and how we teach math. With respect to this last point, arguably generations of math curriculum and pedagogy reformers have sought this same goal – teaching math such that higher order thinking skills develop. But evidence and intuition suggests that this is very hard to do. But certainly we should continue trying…

Is it math, per se, that does not impart the HOTS, or is it the way we teach math that is inept in imparting these skills?

Dr. Star
I would say that both content and pedagogy are important, but it seems that pedagogy plays an especially important role. If we want students to be able to transfer knowledge to domains outside of math class – apply reasoning skills that worked in math class to other kinds of problems – it seems necessary to teach with such transfer goals in mind. There are many different (at times competing) pedagogical visions for how to teach math such that this kind of transfer is possible. Some feel that the best approach is to engage students in certain kinds of reasoning and communication that are believed to facilitate application of knowledge to novel situations, and others feel that a certain amount of practice in applying concepts and skills is necessary for future transfer. I can see potential merit in both of these approaches, although empirically there isn’t a lot of good evidence to point us in the right direction.

I would say that both content and pedagogy are important, but it seems that pedagogy plays an especially important role.

The 8 Common Core Standards of Practice imply that habits of mind can be taught. In your view, do these practices have value?

Dr. Star
I think that the Common Core practice standards are admirable goals. However, as noted above, I think we are still struggling to determine the best ways to achieve these goals pedagogically.

Anecdotally, educated people think, communicate and behave differently than uneducated people. I believe research bears this out as well. Is this then simply a non-associated correlation (people who already have educated traits get an education), or does a quality education truly transform an individual?

Dr. Star
Certainly some people do develop problem solving skills merely by learning math. Some of these people developed (or would have developed) both math understanding and HOTS even if they didn’t have a classroom or a teacher – they could have done so by themselves on a desert island, so to speak. Most people, though, definitely need math training to learn math content, and they need explicit instruction in critical thinking to develop higher order skills as well.

Most people, though, definitely need math training to learn math content, and they need explicit instruction in critical thinking to develop higher order skills as well.

What advice do you have then for classroom teachers in the quest for teaching higher order thinking skills?

Dr. Star
Try to identify the places in your lessons where you hope students are developing higher order thinking skills, and consider ways that you can be more deliberate and explicit in your pursuit of and assessment of these goals. For example, ask your students about any broader connections they are making from the mathematical content of the lesson. Give students opportunities to apply what they have learned in a lesson to other mathematical and non-mathematical topics. Let students know what you mean by phrases such as “critical thinking”, “problem-solving”, and “logical thinking”; give students examples of what these practices look like as well as tasks that allow them to develop and experience these important competencies.

Let students know what you mean by phrases such as “critical thinking”, “problem-solving”, and “logical thinking”; give students examples of what these practices look like as well as tasks that allow them to develop and experience these important competencies.

**** Dr. Star may be reached at jon_star@harvard.edu
****For more of Jon Star’s thoughts on Math Education, see this Scholastic video on YouTube.



Enduring Cosmic Power

Today, I received one of the greatest compliments from a former student in the following post:

Jorge Post Border

This one-time middle schooler, enrolled in my high school Geometry class seven years ago, is referring to my consistent overt effort to have students understand and appreciate the true potential of math. Ultimate Cosmic Power in an Itty Bitty Thinking Space goes beyond the cognitive easter egg hunt that the “answer getting” routine too often reduces math to. I don’t know how to respond to knowing that most students think it is stupid or crazy at the time, but Jorge’s words of enduring impact have me smiling today.

Hey Georgie,
I remember you as a bright, happy young person. Though I am pleasantly surprised that my teaching has lasted with you, I am not surprised that you have chosen a mathematical career path. Build a new world, young engineer!

SMP Posters by MPJ

SMP Posters Pic 2_Page_8I created my own posters for the Common Core Standards of Mathematical Practices. I combined the best from what I found from others and added my own structure. Necessity dictated my doing this for two reasons: 1) I wanted to respect others’ copyrights, and 2) I couldn’t find any that were appealing to secondary students.

With that said, I offer MPJ’s SMP Posters for use in the classroom. Each poster here has the following features:

The summary of the Practice straight from the Common Core documents, as listed in that famous grey box

SMP Posters Pic 1

The verbage of the Practice written in kid-friendly, first person language

SMP Posters Pic 2

A single word that embodies the particular practice

SMP Posters Pic 3

A diagram that displays an application of the practice, using Algebra as an example so as to span both middle and high school

SMP Posters Pic 4

A group of words that relate

SMP Posters Pic 5

A list of questions that pertain

SMP Posters Pic 6

A clip art image of a high school student to drive home the point that the practices are for them and not the teacher

SMP Posters Pic 7

An instructive statement that includes the word “Think”

SMP Posters Pic 8

A special shout out goes to the Jordan School District’s SMP posters for elementary schools which were the initial inspiration for this set. Other sources include: Eastern Bristol High School and Carroll County.

Kicking the Textbook Habit

Textbook FreeI have had several inquiries about an article I wrote many years ago titled, Textbook Free: Kicking the Habit. I am not surprised, because, in these days of Common Core roll-outs with few valid materials, teachers are having to create and find their own curricula. While the article is over a dozen years old, it could not be more timely, so I thought I would make it available again. I hope this helps encourage teachers that using textbooks as a resource instead of as scripture in the era of the New Curriculum can be easy and fun.

Textbook Free: Kicking the Habit

Originally printed in The Math Projects Journal in May 2001:

I kicked the habit! I am no longer a textbook junkie. I no longer rely on my daily fix of some publisher’s bloated curriculum. I am free of my addiction without the help of an arm patch, rehabilitation clinic or twelve-step program. I quit cold turkey. Here’s how.

At my school, the students are issued a math book that they leave at home and each teacher is issued a class set. I usually keep one underneath each desk. This year, however, the librarian informed me on the first day of school that we were out of Geometry textbooks. Our student population had grown so large that our library ran short. In fact, for two to three weeks many of my students would not have a book at home either. There was talk of teachers sharing class sets and photocopying pages for students. I decided to try a different strategy. I took this as a professional challenge to see how long I could teach without a textbook. I knew whatever happened would be a growing experience for me as well as my students.

Well, by no fault of the school library, two to three weeks stretched to seven. By that time, I was well into my “textbook free” strategy, so I just kept the ball rolling…for the rest of the year. I used only 12 assignments from the textbook in those 180 days. Here is how that unique experience of being textbook free has changed my teaching, forever.

Firstly, I am now much more focused on standards. Rather than leafing through the textbook, I looked at my state and district standards, and established my curriculum from those. After all, shouldn’t they be determining what we teach? From there, I grouped the topics into units, and then scheduled individual lessons. This process naturally pared down the number of topics that I taught and allowed me to allocate a full week of instruction to each concept, rather than one day to each section of the textbook.

The second big change that has occurred is the structure of my lessons. Everything from my homework to my instruction has radically changed. My typical textbook free lesson was comprised of three to six problems of various difficulty. Oftentimes, I began a lesson with one to three review problems from previously learned material which applied to the current lesson. This is similar to a traditional warm-up with the exceptions that the problems are very relevant to the new lesson, and not simply arbitrary review.

Sometimes, I began with THE big problem from the previous night’s assignment, and solicited student responses. It is not hard to see that my old practice of dedicating 20 minutes of class time to questions on how to complete the previous homework disappeared. The intent of the class slowly evolved from getting the answers correct to understanding the mathematical principles behind the question.

These introductory problems served as a terrific assessment tool, also. Previously, it was difficult to know how well the students were doing when only a handful of them were asking questions from a truck-load of exercises. However, when the whole class was engaged on the same few problems, it was easy to walk the room and evaluate their performance and understanding.

The introductory questions naturally lead to the main problem or small set of problems that would drive the lesson. The students were engaged in an investigation, project or activity relating to the concept. Each day my students came to class to solve problems, rather than take notes — a huge change from all the previous “textbook years.” This process of problem-solving and investigation consumed the full class period. Gone were the days of having the students start homework in class. I taught the entire class period.

The homework assignments were only one to three problems long and were typically extensions of the day’s topic, not just practice exercises. I had learned from the international comparisons that America is one of the few countries that pushes the drill-n-kill regime and yet we are at the bottom of the performance pile. So I tried to limit both the number and size of my assignments, and to make them more challenging and contextual.

By doing that, I firmly settled the argument regarding the quantity and frequency of homework that students need to be successful. For the skeptics that are still reluctant to abandon their practice of assigning 30 homework problems a night, I have some strong evidence. My class averages led the district on the district final. With this in mind, I can at least make a case that this new homework philosophy is not hurting my students in anyway.

Another significant change was my lesson planning. Rather than writing examples of how to complete an algorithm or creating cute acronyms to remember esoteric rules, I actually wrote lesson plans. I started planning each lesson by asking: “What do I want the students to know? What is their common misconception of the topic? How can I best get them to understand the topic? How can I challenge them within the context of the topic?” I would then try to create a story/context/scenario and a small set of problems that would best develop understanding of that topic. It was so much fun. This change in my approach to lesson planning was actually a reflection of my new attitude towards teaching. My job description truly shifted from covering material to uncovering knowledge.

Focused, standards-based curriculum; in-depth, problem-solving instruction; short, conceptually-based homework assignments. This experience was so exhilarating that I am now a junkie all over again. I traded my old addiction to the textbook, for a new one — creative lesson planning. This is one habit, though, that I never intend to kick.

Common Core and The Land of Oz

Oz FourThe Common Core is a noble cause. Who would argue that teaching kids to think and communicate their thinking is anything but a virtuous goal? It’s like the Emerald City in the Land of Oz, and standing between us and that bright shining city is a Wicked Witch and a bunch of Flying Monkeys. We know how the movie ends, though; we will melt that witch and make it down the Yellow Brick Road.

I made this comparison for a news reporter after my keynote address at the Idaho State Math Conference last fall. My analogy made NPG News at the same time that my math coaching colleagues and I back at Temecula Valley Unified were developing a four-year plan for professional development and student support in our district. So we wove the Wizard of Oz theme into our plan.

It turned out to be more than a catchy metaphor. The theme is actually quite symbolic to the trials and potentials of rolling out the common core.

4 Year PlanLet’s begin with the Emerald City. The Common Core claims to teach students 21st Century skills. In our district, we have summed up those skills as the ability to “Think and Communicate.” This, then, is our noble cause, our shining city.

Along the Yellow Brick Road is the infamous Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys. Our number one issue for teachers in Year 1 of the roll out was the lack of resources, and therefore, the demand upon them to find and create their own curricula. We did not anticipate this phenomenon, but it quickly consumed our role as math coaches. Our first year will end (hopefully), with Units, Pacing Guides & Model Lessons in place, and with an infrastructure to share them among the 130 secondary teachers in our district. Since this is by far the biggest obstacle facing us, and the ugliest work to overcome, establishing the content, scope and sequence gets the tag as the Wicked Witch. In Year 2 (the first of the Flying Monkeys) our primary purpose is to change our method of first instruction. The Common Core is calling for radical shifts in how we teach as well as what we teach, so that will be the focus of Year 2. Year 3 then focuses on what to do for those students who don’t get it (Tier 2 intervention). Finally, while we continue with the work that we laid out in the first three years, Year 4 will emphasize enrichment for students who easily learn the material and on implementing student use of technology.

Reflection FrameWhile many of the obstacles listed above deal with the work of us math coaches, the work of the teachers is personified by the four main characters of Oz: Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. Their training is structured around the four Essential Questions of a PLC (Professional Learning Community). Dorothy must go first, because she was all about direction (“There’s no place like home.”)  So she asks the question, “What do we want the students to know and be able to do?” The Common Core has defined this question very clearly for us, particularly when it comes to the Mathematical Practices. We summed up these practices on a Reflection Fame that we use to debrief with teachers after our elbow coaching sessions. Year 2 calls upon the Tin Man, because it takes a heart to care for those students who don’t get it, especially in secondary schools. We are now commissioned to deliver a “guaranteed and viable curriculum to ALL students.” Year 2 will focus then on Tier 1 interventions … reaching and teaching ‘those kids’ … within the classroom. In order to do this we must have formative assessment and data collection protocols in place to be able answer the question “How do we know if they know it?” The Lion personifies Year 3, because it will take Courage to deliver Tier 2 intervention in response to “What do we do when they don’t know it?” Then, to answer the question “What do we do when they do know it?,” the Scarecrow and his brain will be employed in Year 4, when all the mighty work of the first three years is in place, and we can focus on the needs of the advanced students and on teaching all students to Think with and Communicate through technology.

Finally, and most importantly, we turn our attention to the students results. These are personified by who else, but the Munchkins. We plan to establish Student Mile Markers. These will be Performance Task benchmarks that will be given each year with the Final Exams (but not necessarily counted in a grade) to be used as a gauge to our collective progress (that of students, teachers, coaches and administrators) down the Yellow Brick Road.

The Wizard of Oz gives us a nice frame to dialogue within, but it also offers an important lesson for all teachers. The Wizard gave Dorothy and her friends absolutely nothing, other than the realization that they already had inside each of them that which they had been seeking all along. As do we. Brains, Courage, a Heart, and a Direction Home.

Innovative math lessons you can use in your classroom today


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