It was a week before the Minnesota Council Teachers of Mathematics Spring Conference when Sara VanDerWerf @saravdwerf messages me because there have been canceled sessions. She wants to know if I will do a pop-up session, and of course I will. The only problem- the topic.

Last year at MCTMDuluth, and this NCTM, I spoke about using Open Middle Problems to Promote Classroom Discourse. Around Minnesota, I’m the Open Middle guy (except that one random incident where I was the Desmos guy) and that is totally OK because I truly believe in the power of Open Middle Problems in the classroom. Those problems have led me into thinking about two other changes to make in my classroom (and these are not new in any capacity for educators)- Problems you Pose to Students and How you Ask Questions. This is actually what my proposal for NCTM DC is next year and it’s still a stream of consciousness for me, nothing really concrete. This is the topic I chose to present, to get a feel for how it feels as a presentation as well as to get input from my awesome peers at the MN conference.

The Google Doc presentation is here.

Too often students don’t understand what is going on in math class. Earlier on in education, this was deemed OK- these students were slow and needed to catch up to the others. More often than not, I think that this clip is how students feel in a math class.

When this does happen, we lose these students, this is where the Math Identity of these students is taken away. This is when students need us the most.

Students who are behaving in certain ways in your middle or high school math classes are not acting that way because they *WANT* to, they act that way because they have *LEARNED* to act in that manner to hide their feelings about math. I have yet to find a student who doesn’t want to be better in math class, but it takes a lot of trust building and showing that you care to get those kids to crack and admit it.

We are teaching in the 21st Century and still use 18th Century mediums. Books are not new, like it or not they are slowly becoming a dying technology (much like typewriters). Our students interact with electronics, and we need to provide instruction through mediums that they interact with. When I was young, I was trapped on a farm outside of town with no way to get anywhere. I did a ton of stuff outside and if I wanted to “get away” I had to read a book. They took me on journeys and adventures that I could only imagine. My son however can pick up his iPad instead of a book. That is how he interacts. Right now, I have tons of difficulty getting him to read- it is a constant struggle. Too many of my Students are the same. They don’t process information by seeing it in a book, written on a board, or even when they hear rationalization of the process (because once again, it is referencing text). We need to provide students with other ways to see math.

Students have to have an experience with what you are trying to teach them. An experience they can relate to. An experience they can visualize, manipulate, interact with. Notice that I’m not saying we have to use digital technology here, we need to give them experiences that they can interact with. This can be provided in many different ways, some with technology and some not. I do agree with Dan Meyer in his age old talk about Video Games- we need to provide students with experiences in a similar fashion as video games because that is how they have learned to learn.

Give students a video to watch, activity to participate in, a photo to view, a puzzle to solve. Allow them to notice problems and wonder about how to solve them. Have them verbalize patterns and make conjectures on how they are related. Allow them to be mathematicians before you introduce “formal structure.”

I’m not saying you have to totally abandon whatever curriculum or groove you currently rock in the classroom, but I am asking you to take the time to introduce a front-end stimulus for students that will allow them to have some practical experience with the mathematics you teach before you start the “I do, we do, you do” process.

After you provide students with some experience with the math, *AND* allow them to notice and wonder about things, *THEN* you can start questioning. Notice here that I have yet to talk about calculating answers or assigning homework problems. There has to be a lot more that happens before that- even though we all feel the crunch of getting our curriculum in “by this time” and get kids to master skills “for the test.” Trust me, if you can get students talking, wondering, and verbalizing their thinking through questioning you will have a TON less work in the form of student questions on “how do I do number 13?”

One of the biggest thing many teachers can do to help their students be successful in the classroom is to implement a universal lesson design. This may seem like a special education method but it is truly best practices. If you learn to design lessons taking all of these considerations into mind, you will have provided students the best possible learning experience and environment. (And I’m willing to throw out there that you will enjoy your lessons more as well).

Like I said earlier, this is just a stream of thought, please drop some comments on your thoughts on this- I’m still learning and would appreciate any input on this.