Thursday, December 18, 2014

The King of the MTBoS (Day 83)

Today and tomorrow, of course, are the second and third finals days-- since generally there are three finals days, each day a minimum day with two periods of two hours or so each. Since I already posted the final, today's a good day to take a step aside and discuss this blog's place in the MTBoS.

The MTBoS is the Math Teacher Blogosphere -- the set of all blogs by and for math teachers. Some of the links that I've posted so far, such as Math Hombre and Sarah Hagan's Math Equals Love, are full-fledged members of the MTBoS. As I've mentioned before, most members of the MTBoS blog about the special math lessons that they've had with their students, and this is why I strive to do the same on this blog, despite not yet having my own classroom.

But I have yet to post to the most popular math blog of all. Indeed, nearly every member of the MTBoS has linked to this website at least once on his or her own blog. And so I don't consider myself a full member of the MTBoS until I link to this site as well.

Who is this most popular math blogger, the King of the MTBoS? Of course, it's Dan Meyer -- more commonly known as dy/dan:

So who is Dan Meyer, and what makes his site so popular? Well, he is a fellow California high school math teacher who often gives presentations about how best to teach math. The best way to get to know Meyer is to look at his most recent post, where he discusses his most recent talk at the annual California Math Council (which occurred over my birthday weekend):

I suspect that upon seeing that title, "Video Games & Making Math More Like Things Students Like," many traditionalists will give pause. They feel that so much time is being wasted trying to entertain the students and not enough trying to educate them -- and that if we spent time only on the latter, math achievement will be as high as it was in the good old days of their own youth. So the last thing they'd want to see is trying to make math class more like a video game.

But I disagree with the traditionalists here -- and here's why. If one wants to teach a traditional class with nothing but direct, "sage on the stage" instruction, one doesn't need a blog or a presentation on how to teach that way -- just teach that way. The whole purpose of blogs and presentations is to give alternative, new ways of teaching. And if students are fascinated by video games, then maybe by making math class more like video games, students will be almost as fascinated by math class. The real choice often is not between a fun class and traditionalist direct instruction, but between a fun class and nothing at all. For the students whom Meyer is trying to reach, anything that's not as fun as a video game is simply ignored.

Of course, notice that programming video games is extremely math intensive, especially graphing -- and I should know, since about two years ago I met a former high school classmate of mine who told me that he worked for a video game company for a few years. So anyone who says "I hate math!" or even "I hate graphing!" should avoid playing video games, period, since if graphing in math classes were to disappear, so would video games.

But that's not what Meyer's lecture was about. It's not about how math can be applied to video games, but on how math class can be made as interesting as a video game -- or, for another example of modern entertainment, a movie.

The idea that math lessons should be more like movies is the cornerstone of Meyer's specialty -- the three-act lesson. The three-act structure goes back much further than movies -- it goes all the way to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks. Most plays and stories have three parts -- a beginning, a middle, and an end. More specifically, they have a Setup, a Confrontation, and a Resolution. Even video games have their underlying story.

And so Meyer's lessons are also structured this way. About four months ago, Meyer posted his most recent three-act lesson, "Dandy Candies":

This lesson begins with a Setup --  Dandy Candies tells students they’re going to package up 24 cubical candy boxes. It asks them, “Which of four packages uses the least amount of packaging? Which uses the least amount of ribbon?” The Confrontation is where students make guesses as to what the dimensions of the box need to be, and calculate the surface area. The Resolution is where the class compares and discusses their results in order to answer the question in the Setup.

This sounds like an interesting lesson. I'm considering incorporating it into my own course for this blog, since we cover surface area and volume second semester.

Today I subbed in a seventh-grade classroom. In most of the classes, the teacher's lesson plan was for the students to plot points on a coordinate plane to draw a Christmas snowman -- a very common assignment often given the day or two before a long school break. But many of the students were not on task -- and yet I bet that many of them will go home to play the same video games whose graphics depend on graphing on a coordinate plane.

But one class was a intervention class, a second math class that struggling students often take. For this class, there was no lesson plan except to continue the graphs from the main class. So I decided to play the game that I described back in October. Since yesterday the students took a test on integer operations, I decided to ask questions on this topic. But some of the students wanted to earn more points for their group, so they wanted me to ask a fraction question, even though I was only giving questions on integers. That's right -- students in a middle school math class were actually asking for fraction problems! Such is the power of making math class more like a game.

I once read someone brag on Facebook how they can remember funny movie lines for years yet can't remember what they learned in math class last week. And so I disagree with the traditionalists here. I am now a loyal subject of the MTBoS and its king, Dan Meyer, and its his philosophy that I strive to follow here on this blog.

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