Surreality: Cornally.profDev(you);

No one knowing the answer is a motivation stronger than any grade or monetary reward

We live in an era of surreal. By that I mean that I can listen to music literally as it is published. By surreal I mean that a lactose intolerant fellow like myself can enjoy a soy-coconut ice cream approximation that makes him forget his Haagen-dasz days. By surreal I mean that I coordinated an IT effort encompassing home-brewed SQL and PHP solutions from my iPod touch while walking outside of my school because I got locked out of the back doors. I also mean that, after blogging for nigh on three months, I’m beginning to get offers to come places to speak and throw down professional development.

I feel flattered and a bit ridiculous: I am you. I am a teacher in a room with kids, and this blog is my professional development. This reflective process is so utterly necessary for my understanding of what has happened in my room that without it I would probably forget most everything. I am borderline flustered that some of you want me to talk to your colleagues, but I really have to be honest and say that there’s not really much to say. You all have chosen to be online looking at blogs and researching great lessons. It’s not like I hang out with Dan Meyer on the weekends; I just read his blog, too.1

So, let’s cut out all the travel; here’s what a Cornally professional development session would feel like:

1. Students Must Own Curriculum:

This is about as incense-and-dreadlocks as I get. Here’s what I’m getting at: Students come in and expect that the teacher has everything figured out, that the next 50 days are totally planned. They believe that an infinite train of students before and after them will do these exact same things. I dare you to try and invest in something like that, and yet we ask our kids to? I wish this blog weren’t rated PG.

Maybe it’s because I’m listening to Jay-Z, but I’m going to pick a fight. I know we’re preparing kids for those roving bands of belligerent parabolas ravaging the countryside, but honestly, who cares about parabolas?

Who cares about factoring quadratics? Oh, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians? You’re right! I suppose you just could have said the lilliputian minority of students too…

By ownership I mean that it should be clear to kids that what they’re learning is for their benefit. You have to accept that these kids are anything but fully abstract thinkers.

“…but, but you’re practicing your thinking skills!” panders the teacher.

“I can think about my Call of Duty game too, Teach.” Do you have any idea how many maps and strategies the average high schooler has memorized in these games? Interesting.

In our fictitious professional development sessions this manifests as an exercise in genuine problem finding. What’s something that needs to be solved? What’s a genuine question you have about the world?  How do you seed these questions non-trivially with kids? As an expert teacher it’s your job to build a lesson out of this. The more you practice, the more this maps straight back to your curriculum. I would model this process with you and your colleagues, and then we’d jump straight to step 2.

2. Motivating Necessity:

Now that we’re problem generating we’ve got to start problem solving. This is where math is created, historically and currently.

I had this conversation with my kids on Thursday: “How’d this book [Larson’s Calculus]  get written, y’all?” I don’t know that they’d ever thought about it. These people, centuries ago, had problems. Not end-of-the-chapter problems, but real problems. Real questions like, “Is it even possible to know when something will have a zero?” or “Shouldn’t this class of diff eq’s have solutions, what’s stopping me?” The kids bought this like snow cones in July. They totally got it. No one knowing the answer is a motivation stronger than any grade or monetary reward. What if something is on the cusp of discovery? That’s thrilling. Where are these places, they asked. Gravity. Primes. Fusion. Etc…

This is all I’m really asking for math and science ed to become. Move from content for content’s sake, and move towards content for necessity. When is this method or knowledge necessary for actually solving a problem? Not a real-world problem necessarily, but any problem? What’s worse, is that it has to be the best method for finding the solution, too. If you pass a lesson through these filters, you’ve got a hook on your hands.

3. If It’s Not Extensible, It Wasn’t Learned:

If the kids can’t generalize a technique beyond impotent book problems, then you’d better hope they get a job being impotent. I’m not saying practice problems are bad, in fact I pick out a nearly ludicrous amount of book problems. More on that in 4. It’s about the idea, not the process.

Take finding maxima for example: this is arguably the most important use of the derivative, but kids want to memorize a process of setting anything they can see equal to zero. They’d set the number one equal to zero, if you’d let them. That makes me seethe. I feel like I leak angry-goo during moments like this in class, my containment seals can only take so much regurgitation.

The idea necessitates the math.

Teach the idea, and let the process follow. Ask yourself why you would do something like what you’re about to teach. If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, it’s probably because you’re about to teach one of those things that won’t make sense until way later in their math career. (What if they don’t have a future math career?) In this case you need to motivate the thinking and generation of the technique. Not all things are real-world, but all things can be generated from a genuine place of motivation. They’re going to forget your content anyway (mostly) so teach the stuff that matters instead.

How do we do this in professional development with teachers? We model extensibility. We show how an understanding of gravity should allow for you to explain a pendulum clock as well as a roller coaster. We work with these things, and we listen to our students (teachers) to see what they really know. A test is cute, but watching and listening are better.

4. Homework, Oh Joy!

Practicing is just that. Stop grading it. Will they do it, if I don’t grade it? WILL THEY?!?! *CONNIPTION FIT* Ahhhh… The agony you must be experiencing:

YES. THEY. WILL. ISeeItEverySingleDayWithFreshmenSophomoresJuniorsAndSeniors. relax and let go.

And they will love you for not grading it. They will build you a sedan chair to take you from room to room. Read this.

5. Your Grade Book Is Meaningless

See SBG at top. Guess what kids think about the grades you give them? Nothing. That should piss you off.

How do we do this in professional development? Give a quiz. Grade one group traditionally and one group using SBG, and then ask the teachers to remediate before a re-test later that day. Home run, yo.

I would more than love to hang out with you in your building to learn from each other, but it’d probably be negligent of me to show up feigning any kind of professional development expertise. (I’ll leave that to the people with the fancy PowerPoints) I bet we can just twitter this thing out. @ThinkThankThunk


1. Although that would be pretty much awesome. Vegas? J/K… I mean unless you’re down. No? Yea, totally J/K.