Revisiting the revisitation of the 2000 election

A couple years ago I shared a stats-ish problem idea regarding the oh-so-fun 2000 presidential election. The problem was cribbed from a graduate level stats textbook but the data are straightforward enough for a – let’s say – 9th grader to grasp. What made me want to revisit the task is some fun data tools that Tuvalabs recently released. Tuvalabs, whom I’ve raved about in other forums, now allows teachers to upload their own data so that kids can play with it in a non-Excel format.

So the 2000 election. Yeah that was fun. Anyway, I uploaded the data I had from the original task and went to town. The data show the county-by-county votes for George W. Bush and for Pat Buchannan. You’ll recall that Palm Beach voters complained about the confusing butterfly ballot. Some voters claimed they intended to vote for Al Gore but accidentally punched the chad for far-right candidate Pat Buchanan.

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I reworked the original task in my previous post, and I’ll rework it again so here, in proper entry event form.

So play around with the data yourself. How would you present the task as a teacher? How would you present the analysis as a student? And what workshops and scaffolding would you offer in between?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Your 2014 Math Blogging Retrospectus

Compiled a tad too late for the Winter break, but just in time for January in-service, here’s your 2014 collection of posts shared by people who came across my post.

[2014 Math Blogging Retrospectus]

Be sure to check out previous years’ retrospecti as well.

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Calling for 2014 Math Blogging Retrospectus Posts!

Ah it’s the time of year again. The time of year when we all start looking forward to fireplaces, family, and chewing up reams of your school’s printer-paper by printing out the Math Blogging Retrospectus.

The impetus of creating the Retrospectus was that it’s so damn hard to keep up with all the great math teaching content being produced. It’s really difficult to make sure you got all the value out of the math blogosphere when new posts and bloggers pop up every day. Thus, the Retrospectus.

All I’m asking you to do, dear reader, is to paste a link to one (or two or three or ten) of your favorite math blog posts from 2014 in the comments. It’s up to you to determine what “favorite” means. Perhaps it was something that you used in your class or want to use in your class. It’s possibly a moving story from a thoughtful facilitator. It could be a post that made you think differently about something, or in a new light.

From last year’s description:

It’s incredibly difficult to keep track of the ever-growing Math Blogosphere. Keeping up with posts is like trying to hold water in your hands. I’m looking for timeless or timely math blog posts that inspired, touched, and/or entertained you. This decidedly NOT a voting thing. It’s NOT a ranking. And for the love of all things holy, it’s not an EDUBLOG award thing. If a blog post touched a single person, I’d like to capture it: chances are it’ll touch another. There are math blogs that I and you do not even know about, but someone reading this does. Let’s all partake in some shared sharing. Share a link to a few (or several!) blog post that you truly enjoyed, I’ll do some of my patented copying and pasting and attempt to assemble it into a tome that can be downloaded or printed out. They could be short posts on instructional practices or problem ideas. They could be longreads of reflections on teaching and systemic issues. Any and all types are welcome.

I’ll start. Throughout the year, I’ve been bookmarking interesting posts. Here are 10 (and only 10) of them.

Now it’s your turn: post a link in the comments below. If you’ve been derelict in your duties of bookmarking your favorite posts, the @GlobalMathDept newsletter archives might be a goof place to get your footing.

Once you’ve done that, feel free to go back and check out previous years’ Retrospecti:

[2012 Math Blogging Retrospectus]

[2013 Math Blogging Retrospectus]

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Critiquing the Common Core on its Merits and Demerits

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Criticism of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has sadly devolved into theater, when it and schools would benefit from critical analysis. CCSS criticism is all-too-often hyperbolic while CCSS defense delves in dismissal of concerns or even ridicule. That’s a shame because CCSS could use a critical eye: one that understands the standards as an educator and is able to negotiate the good and the bad. A good-faith critique as it were. That’s what I aim to do here as an educator, a parent, and an instructional coach.

Before we get into it, I suppose I should give a full disclosure of all my work-related comings and goings, because that’s apparently a thing that gets called into question these days: I generally support Common Core. I’m a former math teacher (so I naturally gravitate toward critiquing CCSS-Math) who became employed in my current position starting with a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to professionally develop teachers toward CCSS implementation. I’m still employed at the same non-profit, but no longer under that or any grant.

Here are four things I think about CCSS.

1)   National standards are basically a good thing, but they do pave the way for mass-assessment.

The concern about horizontal and vertical alignment is real. Pro-CCSS folks often point to student mobility from state-to-state as a reason to have nationalized standards, but I’m not even sure you need to go that far. I taught in a district that wasn’t aligned from school-to-school. It would have been nice to have a clear playbook of standards that we were all working from so I knew roughly where kids were (or should be) from day 1.

However, a nationalized set of standards makes it really easy to test and develop tests. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the genesis of national high-stakes testing, a common set of standards may well accelerate it. A nationalized set of standards will make it such that an environment where School X is compared with School Z is inevitable. While I’m a big fan of data generally, that kind of cookie-cutter analysis is troublesome. Even if next generation assessments are “better” (as is alleged, whatever it means), the impetus to benchmark students like crazy will be there.

 It’s also true that killing the CCSS won’t end the over-benchmarking of students via standardized test. Neither will scrapping NCLB.

2)   The standards are generally better than current state standards.

I had a conversation this weekend with a Scientist and kindergarten Teacher. We wound up talking a bit about Common Core. The Scientist was mentioning that he saw one of those Facebook posts where the parent shares a confusing worksheet and then it goes viral and then that’s supposed to be evidence that Common Core is dumb. The Scientist, however, said “I saw the worksheet and was like ‘that’s how I do arithmetic in my head.’ The Teacher was a fan of conceptual understanding, promoted in CCSS in a way that until recently was oft absent in state standards.

Conceptual understanding of numbers and number-sense is crucial for (among other reasons) future Algebraic understanding. CCSS attempt to get at that. However, it leaves many parents – even educated parents – frustrated. Within the past few weeks I’ve had to google “Story Mat”, “Base 10 Drawings”, and “bar model” – which aren’t even in the Common Core Math standards, but rather, idiosyncratic terms developed by curriculum publishers – to help my daughter with her math homework, and I’m allegedly some sort of math expert. I’ll admit it’s frustrating, and there will be a gap between those of use that learned procedurally and those that are learning conceptually. Still, the ability to break apart numbers and recombine them is an essential mathematical skill.

Moreover, state standards are often kind of a mess. They can be a mish-mash of best-intentions, over-prescriptive, lengthy, poorly-aligned, and not terribly well thought-out or research-based standards. Sometimes they look like the worst of things that were invented by committees. I can primarily speak to the context I taught in (Texas), but I’ll say that CCSS-M are fewer, cleaner and simply better standards than the ones I had to wrestle with. There’s an emphasis on reasoning and conceptual understanding that wasn’t there in the previous generations’ standards.

It’s interesting that Indiana, which opted out of CCSS, has adopted standards that look conspicuously like CCSS. It’s one reason that I’m optimistic that even if CCSS becomes so politically toxic that all states abandon it, it will still have been for the greater good. The folks actually in charge of standards and standards-writing generally see the good that CCSS has to offer.

3)   Common Core has had an awful rollout strategy and has been accompanied by virtually non-existent training.

The Teacher in the aforementioned conversation was a fan of Common Core, but did describe that many of her colleagues were struggling to teach math conceptually rather than procedurally. That’s 100% understandable given the means of CCSS rollout, which wasn’t much of a rollout at all.

I can’t say exactly what the “correct” rollout would have looked like, but it wouldn’t have been this. Teachers are often left to interpret and teach the new standards on their own. There’s a gap between how teachers (and you and I) learned (or didn’t learn) math and how teachers are expected to teach. Almost every teacher working today was trained in a decidedly non-CCSS pedagogical environment.

While that’s understandable in any seismic shift in education standards, what’s inexcusable is the lack of time and resources devoted to professionally develop teachers, particularly at the federal level. Race To The Top (RTTT) is kind of ridiculous as an avenue to professionally develop teachers: “show us that you can demonstrate proficiency in Common Core and then we’ll give you money to develop teachers to teach using Common Core State Standards.”

What’s worse is that many states and districts are tying teacher pay and employment to success on standardized assessment. And they’re doing it now, instead of after a few years of trial! I’ll be honest, if I knew my employment was tied to my students being successful on a math assessment, I’d probably “play it safe” and try to push as much algorithmic instruction as possible as a temporary band-aid rather than try a new avenue of fighting for conceptual understanding. So there may even be a misalignment between the current instruction and the current standards.

There have been disparate tools here and there to help teachers out, but no nationalized training or systemic interpretation. It’s been largely grant-based which is, by nature, sporadic and not systemic. Pro-CCSS folks like to chortle at the vitriol directed toward Bill Gates for awarding CCSS-related grants, but grants as a mechanism to drive systemic and ubiquitous change is a sketchy proposition.

But once again, my optimism shines through: now that math education programs and teacher training programs actually have standards (good ones!), they’ll hopefully start being able to prepare teachers properly. There will certainly be a lag time.

4)   There are legit concerns about the appropriateness of grade-specific domains

I’m uncomfortable suggesting that “Every student should know how to do X by the end of first grade.” Kids do come in at very different levels. What’s confusing about CCSS (Math) is that after Grade 8, they do away with grade-specific standards and give general domains such as “High School: Interpreting Functions” and “High School: Number and Quantity”. It’s as if after 8th grade, suddenly students and schools have the agency to figure it out on their own.

I appreciate having those benchmarks of what students “should” know by the end of each grade. However, the consequences of students not being able to demonstrate proficiency on those standards – particularly in the early grades – can be disruptive. And while Pro-CCSS folks would argue that we need to separate the standards from the assessments of those standards, the assessments and consequences are a natural outcrop of nationalized standards. One naturally follows the other. And I’ve no idea how to alleviate those consequences. Districts, States, and the DOE will not simply afford more resources to schools with students that fail to meet those standards. They’ll shut them down. Common Core State Standards is part of a system that potentially greases the skids for school closures and community disruption. These disruptions are essentially mandated in NCLB as federal law, before the CCSS existed. My fear is that CCSS will be used as the tool that NCLB uses to disrupt communities.

It’s also not fair to pin blame on the standards themselves. The goal was to develop a set of national, easy-to-follow, research-based, appropriate standards that would ensure students would build toward conceptual understanding of mathematics and problem solving, and I believe they achieved that goal.


I’m not terribly optimistic about the long-term sustainability of CCSS as a national set of standards. Steve Leinwand once said that if Common Core becomes political, it’s dead in the water. It’s certainly political now (even if it doesn’t really move the needle electorally). I am optimistic that the folks in charge of evaluating and writing standards, such as those in State Departments of Education, have tended to see the importance of conceptual understanding, among other things.

I’m hopeful that 10 years from now either A) my concerns and the concerns of others will have been addressed or B) the residual of the failed-implementation of CCSS remains embedded in state-level standards. Either way, it’s about time we have a conversation about Common Core that is based in actual teacher input and student outcomes.

(I’m happy with comments on this post with the intention of continuing conversation. But c’mon, hysterical comments have no chance of getting published.)


Thanks to Christopher, Tracy, and Mike for their feedback on this post.

Posted in commentary | 11 Comments

Where inquiry and methods intersect

Had a nice, quick twitter conversation with Anna (@borschtwithanna) yesterday morning. Anna reached out with a question about providing methods in an inquiry-based classroom.

Anna was conflicted due to her students’ unwillingness to deviate from their inefficient problem-solving strategy. Rather than setting up an equation…

Setting aside for the moment that this is actually a pretty good problem to have (students willing to draw diagrams to solve a problem, even at the cost of “efficiency”), it does circle back to the age-old question when it comes to a classroom steeped in problem-solving: “Yeah, but when do I actually teach?”

The answer to that particular question is “um, kinda whenever you feel like you need to or want to?” The answer to Anna’s question is pretty interesting though, and I’d be curious what you think about it. Personally, I never had students that were so tied to drawing diagrams to solve a problem, that they weren’t willing to utilize my admittedly more prescriptive method. I do have a potential ideas though.

Consider Systems of Equations. This is a topic that is particularly subject to the “efficient” method vs. “leave me alone I know how to solve it” method spectrum. Substitution, elimination, and graphing were all methods that students “had” to know (I’ll let you use matrices if you’d like, I’m good with just these three for now).

Anyway, so I’m supposed to teach these three different methods for solving the same genus of problems. I want kids to know all three methods (generally), but also want to give them the agency to solve a problem according to their preferred method. Here are a few possibilities to tackle this after all three methods are demonstrated:

1) Matching: Which method is most efficient?

OK so matching is kind of my go-to for any and all things scaffolding. It’s my default mode of building conceptual understanding and sneaking in old material (and sometimes new material!).

In this activity students cut out and post which method they think would be the most “efficient.”

Students could probably define “efficient” in several ways, which is ok in my book. Also, it’ll necessitate they know the ins and outs of all three methods.

2) Error finding and samples of work

This is another go-to of mine. Either find or fabricate a sample of work and simply have students interpret. If you’re looking to pump up particular methods, consider a gallery walk of sorts featuring multiple different methods to solve a particular problem. The good folks at MARS utilize this in several of their formative assessment lessons. These are from their lesson on systems.

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Students are asked to discuss samples of student work and synthesize the thinking demonstrated, potentially even to the point of criticism.

That’s a couple different ways to address methodology and processes that may turn out to be more efficient, while still allowing for some agency and inquiry on the part of the student.

What do you have?

Posted in algebra, scaffolding, tasks | 3 Comments

Quick Hits: Razor Blades and Fractions

A potential fractions task because because middle schoolers probably really struggle with the high cost of shaving blades. Not a super complex task, but maybe good for a warm-up?


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Suggested Knows/Need-to-Knows:

We know…

  • Dollar shave club sells razors at a price of four for $6.
  • “Their” razors cost 1 1/2 for $6.

We need-to-know (or, we’d like to know)…

  • How much do both companies’ blades cost per blade?
  • How much do “theirs” cost for a pack of four?
  • Where did Dollar Shave Co. get these prices for “theirs”?

Quick commentary:

One of the things I like about this is that you potentially have a fraction within a fraction. That is, one can calculate the cost of “their” razors by dividing $6 by 1 1/2 razor blades.

Also – and I don’t say this often – please don’t make this a hands-on activity.

(9/20) Update / Conclusion?

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Assessment via audibles: OMAHA! OMAHA!

It’s both the first question and the last one when developing an inquiry-driven classroom, ostensibly featuring significant groupwork:

How do you keep individual students accountable while working in groups?

While that’s a huge bear of a question that is better addressed via a book, I want to take a stab at a small slice of it. I’m going to ask myself this question instead:

How do you assess individual students in group settings?

While also a big question better served by a myriad of strategies, interventions and norm-setting, I’d like to share a brainstorming “aha” moment that I had a couple years back with Jessica (@bloveteach).

We were discussing her thematic Problem-based unit on solving systems of equations featuring diagramming and developing football plays. (Note: you can read about the unit and the awesome task author here from the local paper.)

Jessica and I were trying to come up with a way to adhere to the norms and boons of groupwork and collaboration while developing the unit with an individualized literacy prompt. In groups, students would analyze an assigned football play (specifically the wide receiver routes). The groups would develop a linear equation to model the play. They would prepare a presentation discussing their assigned football plays and whatever additional attributes of the play they’d add on: receivers running parallel routes, crossing patterns and so forth.

denver play orig

Then what? As a network of schools, we’ve pretty much decided that every effective PBL/PrBL unit requires an individualized disciplinary performance task, preferably one as engaging as the tasks themselves. 

After discussing and racking our brains, Jessica and I came up with the idea of audibles. That’s a footbally thing, right?

Students presented their plays as a group, but then Jessica called an audible, in which students were assigned a different, but not totally dissimilar play in which they were to write an analytical report assessed via a rubric.

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(Note: I recently went back and prettied the plays up. You see, these tasks were originally developed back when desmos was only a gleam in Eli’s eyes.

They used the same concepts from their groupwork in a similar scenario to ensure they had gotten the mathematics concepts down pat.


I had a similar conversation about this task from the Shell Centre. 

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This is one of my favorite tasks, so much so I threw it in my PrBL Starter Kit. I was sharing this task and then the question came up: what next? How will I know if individual students have learned anything? Again, setting things like equitable groupwork and norm-setting aside, the easiest thing a teacher could do is go back to the prompt and just do this with it.

security camera task add-on

OK, now you’ve done it in a group, let’s put your understanding to the test.

Shoot, let’s make this the test. It took five minutes to rework the diagram (badly!) with the help of inkscape (free!) and now I’ve got a similar problem for individual students to undertake. Perhaps the embodiment of “we do, you do.” Instead of Peyton Manning calling an audible, Mr. Shopkeeper blew out his east and west walls in order to expand the store. Feel free to use your notes from your groupwork.


The audible method probably isn’t earth-shattering, but it is quick, easy and implementable. And congrats! You just saved yourself the writing of a test.

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Designing Problems: Linking a standard to a context

Context isn’t everything, but it’s often a good thing. Or at least, it’s a thing, sometimes only a starting point. While contextualized scenarios aren’t necessarily the key that unlocks engagement they may allow students to model, activate students’ interests, activate your own interest, or simply serve as a starting point from which to develop a non-routine problem or project.

But where to start?

I’ve tried the stare-at-the-standard-until-inspiration-hits-you-like-a-bolt-of-lightning technique, but it’s not terribly effective. Not often, anyway.

I find there’s often freedom in constraints. A while back, Chris Jackson from College, Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) had us design a performance assessment task based on some psuedo-random nouns and verbs (“fox”, “politics”, “measure”, “travel”, and the like). As difficult as it is to think of a contextualized problem in absentia of any guidance, as soon as the “shackles” of these nouns and verbs were placed on us, our group got straight to work. In a 15 minute time frame, we developed the idea of a performance assessment task in which the student is to analyze data on potentially contaminated milk (or something) and write a letter to a politician advising him/her of a possible political advertisement. Did we fully develop the task? No, we were at a conference and had, like, 15 minutes. Did we design the data? Nope. But those quick constraints allowed us the freedom to think deeply about content.

That felt like an interesting way to begin to design a task: by placing artificial constraints.

I had the pleasure of spending a day at a middle school where the teachers were dipping their toes into the wide waters of PBL. One of the thing I love about my current job is that it forcibly removes me from math-world relatively often. We were brainstorming PBL ideas as an entire staff. We discussed environmental impacts of war (all subjects), skeletal remains identification (systems of equations, biology, social studies), health fairs (all subjects) and more. It’s fun being with teachers that are excited about finding connections across content area, so I was pretty jazzed.

Upon looking at all the brainstorm ideas, I began to think about a schema in which we can place these ideas, potentially to aid future brainstorm sessions. Here’s what I came up with.


What do you think? Consider a content standard (or a cluster of standards) and try to develop a context allowing you to place it in one or several of the grids. Shoot, make it a game: try to get a tic-tac-toe, or BINGO. Maybe even consider your entire curriculum: are you spending an overabundance of time in one particular row, column or grid space? I’d prefer to have this thing blacked out, but that may just be personal preference.

But back to brainstorming, this seems like a potentially useful process check, ensuring you cover all your bases before you throw up your hands and declare a standard entirely devoid of contextualized meaning.

So I may play around with this framework a little bit. It’s probably not terribly revolutionary: all it does is place things on a grid according to temporal and geographic location. Feel free to give it a test run along with me.

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Reduced Fat ‘Nilla Wafers are an Empty Canvas for Problem-Based Learning Models

It’s probably not exactly the Great Double Stuf Oreo Controversy of 2013. We’ll be bouncing our grandchildren on our knees talking about that one. But here I am with some Reduced Fat ‘Nilla Wafers, thinking about multiplying percents and fractions.



Rest assured, I purchased these on accident. I meant to get the Original Wafers in all their full-fatted glory, like so:


Poor stage lighting aside, I want to do something with this, but I’m sort of facing decision paralysis. There are so many great models of Problem-Based Learning or Problem Solving Tasks, it’s difficult for me to settle on one, so I’ll just go ahead and create them all and see what sticks.

Would You Rather

Would you rather eat 5 Reduced Fat Wafers or 2 original Wafers?









Multiple Choice

Here is a plate of original ‘Nilla Wafers.


Which of these Reduced Fat ‘Nilla Wafers plates has less fat in total?

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Multiple Choice: You Make up the Question

Here are a bunch of pictures of ‘Nilla Wafers (original and Reduced Fat). Make up a multiple choice question & answer key.

Gamifying: Really strange playing cards

The point is, I’ve been trying to be less myopic when it comes to PrBL. There are so many great, differentiated models of Problem-Based Learning, I think it would be silly to get sucked into one and one alone. While I do think there is power in iterative routines, such as using a relatively consistent problem solving framework, it would be silly to neglect the power of “Any Questions” or the “Know/Need-to-Know” processes.

Going a bit further, the lines between the task vs. the scaffolding vs. the assessment are probably best when blurred. Considering just these wafers, we could probably place them in any of these three slots.

nilla spots


But alas, here I am, back to my decision paralysis. I suppose it’s a good problem to have.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Larry Ellison, billionaire CEO, makes unsound business decisions with regards to his basketball playing on his yacht.

Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle, has gobs and gobs of money. How much money? Well enough that he can do this.


Boy that seems wasteful, doesn’t it. I mean, when I’m playing basketball on my yacht and I lose a ball into the ocean I just purchase an extra basketball. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Ellison to just buy a bunch of basketballs and grab a new one every time he loses one overboard? So my question is this: How many basketballs would Ellison have to lose in order to make the expense of basketball retrieval worthwhile?

Here is some of the board work we generated during the initial Problem Defining and Know/Need-to-Know process.


It’s critical that we understand our ultimate goal here: we want practice developing a mathematical model based on a given scenario. A model should, among other things, simplify a complex situation. We wound up focusing on only two variables: the cost of the annual salary and the cost of a basketball. A couple variables that folks tossed out ended up not being explored mathematically. As you may have experienced, when given a modeling scenario, students might throw out potential variables to tack on in perpetuity. There comes a tipping point where the mathematical model ceases to simplify a complex scenario and only confuses it further. I find this pretty typical of “make a budget” tasks or other accounting-type tasks (“what about sunscreen costs? what about health insurance? what about the yacht food? etc etc etc.”). When you’re facilitating the brainstorming process, I’d suggest you restrict the number of variables you’re including to two or three. This way, the entire class is focusing on the same few variables, keeping the focus on the model development, not the number of ingredients you can toss into the stew.


Here’s the initial PDF file if that embedded version looks goofy.

Basketball Overboard – Problem Solving Framework (pdf)

Posted in algebra, tasks | 6 Comments