What I learned in 2011

Two Thousand Eleven was a whirlwind of a year. A year ago at this time I thought I was headed to CU-Boulder to begin a PhD. A couple weeks later, a friend let me know about a job as a Math Coach for New Tech Network of schools. Soon after, I was hired and waved goodbye to my PhD aspirations for the time. I probably would have learned a lot in a PhD program, but I submit to you that I’ve learned a lot more in gross as an instructional and curriculum coach than I would have as a PhD student with classes and all.

Since I was hired, I had the opportunity to travel, meeting with teachers, administrators, students, and the occasional maintenance staff. I joined twitter, started this blog, rethought everything I thought I knew about Math education, read some books, and hopefully did some good in the process.

While I’ve learned a lot, mostly what I’ve learned is that I have a lot more to learn.

And since I’ve been preaching that students need time to reflect on their own learning, it’s only fair that I do it myself. Here are some things I learned in 2011.


I’ve learned to not trust anyone that uses the word “silver bullet” in regards to education unless it’s preceded by “there’s no such thing as a”.

I’ve learned that a science-minded person teaching a math class can be a beautiful thing.

I’ve learned that in general, teachers who blog or tweet are exceptional at their job.

I’ve learned that Angry Birds is going to be the dominant universal cultural zeitgeist of the next 10 years, and that it plays incredibly well with science and math instruction.

I’ve learned that United lets you board earlier if you book a window seat.

I’ve learned that Calumet High School in Gary, Indiana is a beautiful place.

I’ve learned that Chicago O’Hare might be my least favorite place in the world.

I’ve learned that having someone challenge what you believe is a great thing.

I’ve learned that people who say that you don’t need a college degree to get through life probably don’t know anyone who’s currently unemployed.

I’ve learned the difference between dressing up a problem to make it look good and a good problem.

I’ve learned that maybe the true value of Project Based Learning is to get you to tear apart your curriculum and rethink your own own teaching practices from scratch.

I’ve learned that maybe Mark Cuban was right to complain about NBA officiating.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned the Timberwolves aren’t.

I’ve learned there’s tremendous value in struggling through a math problem.

I’ve learned that most problems designed around cell phones need to be taken out into a field and beaten with hammers.

I’ve learned that teaching matters a lot more than the SES-is-everything folks think.

I’ve learned that the lack of a “data analysis” course in most high schools’ required four year math program is borderline criminal.

I’ve learned how to invoke cloture on an educational rant filibuster.

I’ve learned if you let testing be your excuse for poor teaching, it will sink you.

I’ve learned that this exists.

I’ve learned that crowd-sourcing is pretty much the way to go when it comes to generating curriculum.

I’ve learned that students like the problem solving, collaborative nature of mathematics. It’s a shame we don’t give them more of that.

I’ve learned to back off a lot on the “relevance” stuff.

I’ve learned I should not enter the Pizza Casbah pizza eating challenge.


What did you learn in 2011?


And lastly, I’d like to give a shoutout to my favorite problem of the year. The First EmergentMath Problem of the Year goes to…. (drumroll please)… Mr. Honner’s Equilateral Triangle Problem! First and foremost, it’s the problem that helped me invoke cloture during the aforementioned educational filibuster. I just sketched it out real quick while the filibusterer was going on and then asked him (or her) to tell me what he (or she) thought about it. For that alone, I’m eternally grateful to Mr. Honner. More than that though, it’s everything that I look for in a good math problem to pose to students: it gets right to the point, there are several routes toward a solution, there isn’t a clear one-size-fits-all solution, any student can access it on some level. I think it’s a near perfect Math problem, if there’s such a thing.


Here’s to a great 2011, and to a better 2012. After all, 2012 has an extra day so we should learn an extra 24 hours worth of material, right?

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2 Responses to What I learned in 2011

  1. MrHonner says:

    A fun, compelling reflection. And interesting to put it in the context of “This is what I did instead of working on a PhD!”

    I think the equilateral triangle problem is my problem-of-the-year also. It’s hard to believe how many interesting ideas came out of that simple, almost silly question.

    And it exemplifies the value of the digital mathematical community: if I didn’t blog, that problem wouldn’t have lived much outside my head; and if interested people weren’t actively engaged, it certainly wouldn’t have developed into something so fun.

    Here’s to 2011! A prime year, indeed.

    • emergentmath says:

      Yeah, I suppose it goes without saying, but I’ve learned so much from the math blogging community in general. Whether it be big, philosophical meta-stuff, or simple activities, I’ve found it to be a cache of great stuff.

      I’m looking forward to 2012 as more and more math teachers start blogging through their curriculum. Eventually (maybe soon), you’ll be able to create an entire curriculum map of engaging problems and activities just by trolling through the blog roll! Here’s to that.

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