Friday, June 29, 2012

Why did you do it? Part I

When John Golden and I made the Mystery Teacher Theatre 2000 (MTT2K) video we thought 100 or so people might see it. Maybe some of our followers on Twitter would click on the link and others interested in education might find it through a hashtag. We were also prepared for a few of the people that seem so dedicated to Khan Academy to turn up and comment. No big deal.

But then Dan Meyer posted the video on his blog and things got interesting. Khan Academy took down the video we critiqued and replaced it with two new videos (here and here). Justin Reich found out about our parody and wrote a post on his EdTech Researcher blog at Education Week. Justin and Dan even sponsored a contest for teachers to make their own versions of #MTT2K. Then, it got surreal as Slate and The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story.

Once the video got some attention, people began asking questions on Twitter and in the comments of the various posts about our approach and what we hoped to accomplish. These questions deserve to be answered. As John points out in his post, I was the instigator, so I will try to address both of these issues. The answers are not simple, however, so I will break this into two posts – addressing the approach now and what we hoped to accomplish in a later post.

This all started on February 1st of this year in my class on teaching and learning math in the middle grades. The focus of the first workshop of the class that day was the NCTM’s Communication Standard:
Instructional programs from prekindergarten through grade 12 should enable all students to--
  • Organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking through communication;
  • Communicate their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others;
  • Analyze and evaluate the mathematical thinking and strategies of others;
  • Use the language of mathematics to express mathematical ideas precisely.
The plan was to watch two online videos about multiplying and dividing integers using the above bullet points as a framework and then consider how well each video met the Standard. Integer computation was the topic simply because it was the next section of the syllabus. In other words, the topic led me to the videos, not the other way around.

In preparation for the workshop I previewed a video from Khan Academy and a video from Mathtrain.TV. These sites were selected because they represent resources teachers are currently using across the country and I wanted the preservice teachers to be aware of their existence. I was a bit surprised by the number of issues in the Khan Academy video but it was a perfect assessment of my students’ ability to apply the Communication Standard to another person’s mathematical discourse.

Again, the plan was to watch the video and then debrief, but once the Khan Academy video got started it was as if my students could not contain themselves. They quickly identified issues related to consolidation, coherence, and precision and it seemed that they could not wait until the end to share what they noticed. Afterward, I told John it was like an episode of Mystery Science Theater, and that I might write a blog post about it. For a variety of reasons I never did – mostly revolving around a desire to remain above the fray typically associated with Khan Academy critiques.

In March, I listened to the audiobook for Tina Fey’s Bossypants and I was intrigued by the idea of improvisation and how it might apply to education. John listened to the book, as well, and when he was finished I asked if he was interested in participating in a bit of educational improv. He was game but we struggled to come up with a scenario that made sense. The Mystery Science Theater idea came up, and we both liked it but again it remained only an idea.

For me, a USA Today article on Sal Khan helped me to get serious about this project. It was the latest piece praising Mr. Khan and the Khan Academy while basically ignoring (or worse) the concerns of educators over some videos’ inaccuracies and pedagogical issues. I called John and told him I thought the time had come to do some Mystery Science Theater improv.

This part is important! We were concerned that some people would see our satire as mean-spirited and immature. Still, being fans of satirists like Mark Twain and Jon Stewart we recognized that there are times when this approach is necessary. This is especially true when there is a need to break through a person or group's seemingly impenetrable veneer. Given the results, I would say we were correct in our concerns and successful in our use of satire.

I trust this explains the evolution of our approach and how we came to use satire in our video.  As for my motivation, this is already a long post, so what we hoped to accomplish will have to wait until a later post. Please stay tuned.

Monday, June 11, 2012

How long until we "Pig Out"? Part I

"What are the chances of a 'Pig Out'? Part I" is the most popular post on this blog. The activity ends by asking the reader to consider how many tosses it would take, on average, to roll a "Pig Out" and lose the points accumulated during the turn. Just in case you are not familiar with the game Pass the Pigs™, or didn't read the earlier post, here are the rules and a figure showing the scoring:

I developed the following problem solving workshop with my colleague, Dr. Mary Richardson, as part of a presentation for a Math in Action Conference.


Understanding the Problem
In the dice rolling game, Pass the Pigs™, players are always on the look out for the dreaded "Pig Out." If it is tossed before a player passes the pigs to an opponent, the player loses all the points for the round.  A "Pig Out" occurs when the pigs land on opposite sides – dot and no dot (as seen above). Therefore, it would be good to know about how many tosses it typically takes before a "Pig Out" occurs.

Create a Plan
How might you solve this problem?
Please consider several possible solution methods

Carry Out a Plan
Try one of the plans you considered in the previous phase

Looking Back/Ahead

  • Use your results to answer the question, "How many tosses would you expect it takes until a "Pig Out" is rolled?"
  • Evaluate the plan you used (glows and grows) – What did you like? What would you do different?
  • Describe an extension – What other questions arise from this game?


Before I share our results, I want to provide you an opportunity to try solving the problem yourself. There is a free game here if you want to gather your own data. In future posts, I will describe two approaches we used to answer this important question.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What's your story?

This past Friday we attended the release party of the Harvest Queen cd at Kauffman Auditorium in Marquette, Michigan. (The story of how this project came to be is told here [Kickstarter Video] and here [WNMU interview].) The concert, which included traditional and new waltzes, was amazing, but it was only a portion of the overall event. Crossing Paths was intended to be an opportunity to explore various connections between local food and music.

In the afternoon, Kailin Yong conducted a violin master class for players of all ages and abilities. While my wife attended this hour-long class, I went for some local coffeeWhen I returned, Kailin was answering questions from those assembled on the stage. Someone asked him to explain when he started improvising in music.

Kailin responded by playing a beautiful, classical melody and then said (to the best of my memory), "I was very good at telling this story - an old Italian's story. But I wanted to tell my own story. I had been playing for years before I felt free to improvise. I do not want my students to have to wait as long as I did, which is why I had you working on improvisation today."

This reminded me of what Jonah Lehrer shared in Imagine about Yo-Yo Ma
"I was nineteen and I had worked my butt off," Ma told David Blume of The New Yorker in 1989. " I knew the music inside and out. While sitting there at the concert, playing all the notes correctly, I started to wonder, 'Why am I here? What's at stake? Nothing. Not only is the audience bored but I myself am bored' Perfection is not very communicative." (p. 86)
In both cases, expert musicians found being perfect was not enough. They longed to express themselves. They wanted to tell their own story or, at the very least, find a way to add a part of themselves into the retelling of the story of some other songwriter.

It seems to me we spend a lot of time in math class trying to get our students to retell someone else's story perfectly. The standardization of the curriculum leaves little room for learners to improvise and add their uniqueness to the mathematics. It is no wonder that most students see mathematics as a static set of rules. Whether we "tell" them the rules or have them "discover" the rules it amounts to the same thing - they are playing someone else's tune.

I am glad that I returned before violin master class was over (It turns out my compulsive timeliness can come in handy.) Thanks to Kailin's answer, I want to plan more opportunities that allow learners to improvise. I, too, do not want them to have to wait as long as I did to pick up this skill.