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.


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