I have a couple of questions about “Social Justice Math”

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I have a couple concerns regarding “Social Justice Math” that I don’t think I’ve seen addressed. (If they have been, please let me know.)

From what I’ve read SJM is billed as a way to bring real world problems into the classroom with a “justice” lens. Problems related to climate change, economic inequality, racial equity, etc., would be used in class as frameworks for learning different math concepts. (Read more on that here.) In fact, it sounds a lot like Project Based Learning but with a more refined list of suggested issues to study.

The first concern I have is that, like it or not, “Social Justice” is associated with the political left.

Do those advocating for SJM openly say this is a political slant on mathematics and embrace it as such? (Let’s call this “motivation A”.)

Or do they argue they’re talking about social justice (fairness to people in general, without the political connotation) and not Social Justice? (Let’s call this “motivation B”.)

In the former case I’d have real concerns if I was conservative minded person and my child was in that class (or independently/liberal minded and concerned about one political viewpoint seeping into mathematics curriculum). In the latter case the perception will still almost certainly be taken as a leftward spin on math, again because “social justice” is attached to the political left.

The second concern I have is, what exactly is the “social justice” aspect of the math. Is it simply the selection of the topics chosen? Or is it in the conclusions that come from the students’ analysis? Will the teacher point out that social problems are complicated and that both the left and the right have something to say about their causes and solutions?

I can imagine a teacher trying to present these problems in an unbiased fashion and letting students arrive at a variety of remedies to the problems (motivation B folks). But I would bet money that many teachers implementing SJM will be pushing students to arrive at solutions from the political left (motivation A folks).

If they weren’t, then why call it “social justice” math? Why not call it “real world mathematics” or some other less politically charged title that still acknowledges you’ll be analyzing problems that humanity faces? (Again, this seems a lot like a political form of Project Based Learning.)

I fear “Social Justice Mathematics” is the title because they don’t want students to learn to take a dispassionate approach to the problems. They want students to take a certain, Social Justice approved, approach to analyzing the problems. If this is the case then I think we’d be right to push back against SJM, and if it isn’t the case then SJM will face a branding issue for the foreseeable future.

Are my concerns justified or am I way off base? I’d love to discuss it in the comments.

The Absurdity of One-to-One Initiatives

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As comes up every year, someone in our department suggested we go one-to-one. Of course, this sparked lively debate. So much so that do to the frequency of these debates and the cycle of outrage I invariably go through after each one, I’m motivated to write out the multitude of reasons that going one-to-one with textbooks is an absurd idea.

First, let’s talk about costs. A good textbook costs close to $100. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many you buy. If a kid has five classes, that means it’s going to cost roughly $500 dollars per student to go one-to-one textbooks. And it’s not just $500 one time. Of course not, because in a few years much of what’s inside the books will be dated. They will need to be updated and some of them will be so obsolete they’ll need to be replaced entirely. Do we want to go through the up front costs and then the future costs to update and replace them?

Second, let’s talk about letting teenagers carry around several hundred dollars in textbooks. Have you seen the average teenager’s bedroom? Of course not! There’s too much stuff on the horizontal surfaces (and maybe even the vertical surfaces) to actually see any substantial part of the room. Are we going to let kids, who can hardly get a dirty tissue to the trash can across the room, be responsible for hundreds of dollars worth of school property? I think this is a nightmare that no administrator or teacher wants to deal with.

Third, I’d ask you if the cost is worth the benefit. Sure, textbooks have lot’s of knowledge in them. Give students books corresponding to the subjects they’re learning allows them to easily and quickly look up information, helpful diagrams, maps, and other media, but don’t we have teachers for that? Teachers have much of this knowledge, and if they don’t, then they can look it up in their book and deliver it to the students. What’s the point of a teacher if all the information is easily available to the students? Sure, the best teachers might use the books in coordination with their teaching ability to create near sublime learning experiences, but this would surely only be the most motivated of teachers, not the norm.

Fourth, it would be a logistical nightmare. Suppose your high school has 1000 students. Then we are talking about THOUSANDS of textbooks to keep track of. Not just keep track of, but record those that go missing and those that are damaged. Then schools have to make determinations about how much the damages cost. Then who pays for it? The students? What if it’s an accident? What if the student can’t afford it? What if they get lost in a house fire? Who’s on the hook for the bill then? And who does this burden of tracking fall upon? The library? The administrators? The teachers? There’s no good options. And then, who fixes them? Do we offload this responsibility on the already short staffed library personnel? We’d probably have to hire somebody to spend part of their day repairing textbooks, so tack that on to the bottom line.

It seems clear that the costs of trying to put the these resources into the hands of each student almost certainly outweigh the benefits. But this fight will never die. Year after year we’ll continue to hear how we should “give students access to the tools they’ll be using when they leave us”. Given what I’ve outlined above, I can’t see the logic that results in this being a good idea.

Update: I should make something clear. This is purely satire. I am simply trying to make the argument that when it comes to discussions of 1 to 1 technology I think the problems that are brought up are often ones that we have solved in other contexts. This situation never came up in my department. And even if it had, I would never throw them under the bus like this publicly. Once again, this is purely satire.

My Brain on Lesson Planning

Okay. I’ve a got a few minutes. Where is what I did last year? Ah, that’s right. We did that activity, with some direct instruction following. Seems like I didn’t quite the point across when I closed the lesson. Like the kids still struggled with parts of this on the quiz. Maybe I should change it. Maybe I should just start from scratch. Did I leave myself a note or anything?

Check Google doc for comments

Nothing. Good job me. I’ve got to do a better job of that. But sometimes it’s tough to find time. Yeah but it pays off and saves time eventually. Like it would be saving time right now. Okay. I get it. Anyway. I don’t have time to totally revamp it. How can I tweak this to make it work better? Maybe I’ll start with a more open ended question. I read that’s a more effective way to start a lesson then just with direct instruction. Okay. So what’s the question or task?

Goes on the Internet. Checks the MTBoS search engine. Writes down 4 ideas.

Well the first two are probably too much work/time. I might be able to tweak the third though. That would give students a chance to discuss some solving methods before we do the lesson. But I know Sam won’t participate. Man, what is his deal? What is my deal with him? Did I make him mad at some point? I need to talk to him and try improve that relationship. Maybe he’d be more willing to work with his peers. But, he’s doing fine in class so maybe I should just leave him alone. Ugh. I’ll sort that out tomorrow. Anyway. I think this will work. But it’s probably going to take longer than last year. Yeah it’s definitely going to take longer. I really only wanted to spend a day on this. But if they learn this better because I spent more time on it, will it pay off in the future? I don’t think so. It’s not really a topic that builds on itself. But shouldn’t we try to teach every topic really well? Even if it doesn’t get built on later? Maybe. Otherwise why am I teaching it? Well some students will get it and remember it, just fewer than if we spent more time. Okay. So let’s do it, we’ll reduce the assignment a couple of problems and carve out 5 or 10 minutes tomorrow to wrap up anything we don’t get to.

Phone rings

“Yes, I’ll send her down when she gets to class. Thanks. Bye”

She really needs to be in class today. I need to remember to make a copy of the notes for her. She won’t be able to make up the discussion we’ll be having but I guess there’s no way around that.

Glances at papers to grade next to the phone

Ugh. I guess those aren’t going to get done today. Maybe I can do those on my prep tomorrow. Dang. I need to finish that lesson. I think I’m ready to update the weekly plans. I need to make sure I can accommodate this for my autistic student. Did I write down those notes on him yesterday? Nope.

Writes down notes in observation document

Okay. I can make this work for him as well. I need to remember to go through this the morning before we do it.

Adds it to to-do list

Well that should be all set. Just need to look at my other two classes and do the same thing… I hope those don’t need revision. They probably do. I mean how can you assume that they’re in their best form? You’ve been teaching for 5 years. They may not be but they should be in good enough form. They’ll have to be because I don’t have time to rework either of them. Man I hope we have school tomorrow. If we don’t then I can just……..

What I wish I could tell my students

Here’s a list of few things I want to say to students, but am not quite sure how to do it. I’ve said of some of these in whole class contexts and variations of some to individuals. But I’ve noticed in my career that sometimes I notice things about students that are difficult to tell them directly. Maybe it’s the natural human aversion to confrontation, I’m not sure, but here’s the list:

  • You don’t have to go to a four year college if you have no idea what you want to do with your life.
  • If you don’t get into that school, your life is not over. You will get out of college what you put into it.
  • I understand that you’re a bright student. There’s no need to demonstrate that to me and your peers at every opportunity. In fact, you risk alienating some of your peers if you keep doing this.
  • Your ACT or SAT score does not define you, as important as it seems right now.
  • You’re in a controlling relationship. You deserve to be in a relationship in which you don’t feel like the thumb of power is constantly pressing on you.
  • I understand that you’re introverted. The ability to communicate well is an essential life skill. When someone says “hi” to you, you have be able to respond with, at minimum, “hi”.
  • Learning is not a competition, so when you get your quiz back, resist the urge to see how you “stack up” against your peers. (Okay, I’ve actually said this one.)
  • You can break the cycle of poverty in your family, but not unless you make some significant changes to your approach to life and the people in your life.
  • You’re addicted to your phone. Not in like a “haha, I’m trying to talk you so stop snap chatting” kind of way. More like a, “I’m really concerned about how this is going to negatively affect the rest of your life if you can’t get it under control” kind of way.
  • You’re in “regular” math class (as opposed to honors) but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an engineer, computer scientist, etc. In fact, I think you’d be a damn good one.
  • The pressure your parents are putting on you to perform is unnecessary and probably doing more harm than good. Work hard, but don’t cry over test scores, college applications, or an A-.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, but this is a pretty good list. Some of these are positive, but I struggle with how to explain them to students in a straightforward way. One that doesn’t sound preachy. I’m curious as to how other teachers approach situations like this with their students.

6 Reasons This is My Favorite Lesson

I want to share what might be the best lesson I’ve created and a few reasons why.

I actually wrote about this a couple years ago but since we’re doing it right now I thought it useful to reflect on and share it again.

This lesson came from the following problem I was struggling with:

I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to help students understand the connection between trig ratios on the unit circle and the graphs of trig functions on the Cartesian plane. Despite a couple activities and practice I was convinced, mainly through questioning, that they didn’t fully understand it.

My solution to this was to make a giant unit circle and cartesian plane and have students use them to work out problems. This would allow us to literally walk to specific angles and equivalent places on the cartesian plane. The hope was that this would help students solidify the connection between the two.

The details of how the activity works are in the original post and the materials are linked at the end of this post, so I want to emphasize the aspects of the lesson that really make it effective, in a convenient list.

Assessment

The activity is broken into two parts. The practice portion and the assessment portion. The assessment requires students, working in pairs, to come into the hallway and work through five problems (like these). This portion is vital for the following reasons.

Like any assessment, it helps me know what they know.

It makes students take the practice seriously. The assessment mirrors what the practice rounds were like. They take it seriously and practice until they’re confident.

Students work in pairs, sometimes disagree, and then must convince each other of their reasoning. Tremendous mathematical conversations come from this time.

It puts students in a position in which the teacher is there, but can’t help. This is true of assessments in general, but the format of this one means students must convince themselves and each other that their answer is “their final answer”.

No calculator. No notes.

On the assessment, and likewise on the practice, students cannot use a calculator, notes, their unit circle, or anything besides their brains and a whiteboard. This means students don’t have any crutches with which to rely on. These problems are not algorithmic. Each one is slightly different from the other ones. This means that the only way to be successful is to truly understand what is going on in the math.

Engagement

This is my third year doing this activity and every year there’s nearly full engagement. Now, this is precalc and while I wouldn’t say that all of these students want to be there, it is an elective. But it’s difficult for me to get this level of engagement from them.

This is, in part, because they know there’s a test coming after they’ve practiced. But I think it’s also because each problem sparks at least a little bit of curiosity. “How do we figure this out?” Initially many students don’t have a clue about how to approach something like sec(2pi/3) with only their brains and a whiteboard. But with a good understanding of trig they can figure it out.

And figuring it out is satisfying. Students are proud of themselves when they solve one of these problems correctly. I love seeing high fives in my classes, and this is one of those activities where they happen.

Embodied Cognition

I’ve written about embodied cognition before so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that it’s incredibly valuable if you can incorporate it effectively. There is something fundamentally different from paper and pencil when you can stand there with a student inside of a unit circle and discuss these problems. It’s something that is hard to describe, but once you’ve tried it you clearly see the value.

Purposeful practice without a book assignment

A few weeks ago students initially learned how to do these problems via a lesson and practice problems. If that was effective, then I wouldn’t have needed to do this activity. What ends up happening in this activity is that students end up doing a bunch of practice problems, that I never assigned! I just tell them they can do as many practice rounds as they feel they need. Then they work until they have convinced themselves they’ve mastered it.

Partners

The test and practice require students to work in pairs. This is incredibly valuable as students are constantly conversing and helping each other understand. Once again, the knowledge that there’s an assessment plays into this, but who cares? From my observations students are rarely begrudgingly woking through these problems. They seem to enjoy them.

I probably see more learning and teaching happening between the students in this activity than any other lesson I do, for any class.


I understand that without seeing it happen it might be difficult for you to implement this. I’ve included some images below to give you an idea of the set up. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have. I’d encourage you to look for opportunities to use embodied cognition in your classes as I think it can be an incredibly useful teaching tool.

Here are the resources for doing the activity

Description Sheet

Possible Problem Bank

Practice Cards

Assessment Cards (Yeah, I’m not posting these on the web. I, shockingly, sometimes have students read my blog. But if you reach out to me I would be happy to email them to you and save you the time of making them.)

Assessment Rubric

X-axis “Tick Marks”

“Everything Springs from That”

I don’t listen to many political podcasts. In fact, only one. Dan Carlin’s show, Common Sense. In his latest podcast he interviews James Burke, a science historian, documentary creator, broadcaster and all around smart dude.

This episode flirted with politics, but was more focused on how technology affects society and how the rate of change often has unforeseen ripples. It’s a fascinating interview, but the best part for me comes at the end of the interview. Dan presents Mr. Burke with a hypothetical (which I’m paraphrasing).

Suppose the leaders of the country call you up and ask for your advice. What would you tell them in regards to the absolute most important thing to focus on in the future?

“I’d say put a massive amount of effort into the educational system. Everything springs from giving people the kind of education that allows them to think more clearly and express themselves more clearly. Everything springs from that.”

I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately. I recognize that might be like pointing out that a historian has been thinking about history a lot lately. But I’m talking about the big picture of how we educate our society. With the appointment of charter school evangelist Betsy Devos to the head of the Department of Education and recent moves by the Michigan congress to weaken the teaching profession and cut funding, I worry greatly about where we are headed.

The election of Donald Trump, the proliferation of fake news, the gravitation towards soundbites, the lack of empathy, and constant decrease in social capital mean that having a society that can’t think critically could be (already is?) disastrous. If there was any time in our history that we should be focused on education, it should be now.

We can’t have a society of mindless drones that will believe the headline and first two lines of any article that comes across their news feed. We can’t have a society that can’t take another person’s perspective. We can’t have a society that fears change. We can’t have a society that doesn’t understand the value of civil discourse.

An education system that’s working on all cylinders can help prevent this.

We should be focused on how to graduate great teachers. We should be focused on how to help teachers become great. We should be looking to other education models and schools that we want to emulate. We should be focused on making teaching a profession that our best and brightest want to pursue. We should be working to get away from standardized test scores as the sole measurement of a quality education.

As Mr. Burke mentions in the podcast, if we put as much energy and money into education as we did into the Apollo project it could have countless dividends for our society.

Order – How Mathematics is Life

Humans are in a constant pursuit of order. We try to develop schemas to help us deal with frequently occurring situations. We constantly look for patterns. We try to make our lives somewhat predictable.

The brain doesn’t like to think. Thinking is hard. So the brain naturally gravitates towards pattern finding.

This is mathematics.

Mathematicians look around the world for patterns. Looking for truth. They take things they know to be true, and build on them. Constantly growing the body of patterns we know to be true.

The difference between me noticing that whenever it’s cloudy out I’m a bit gloomy and that the derivative of a parabolic function is linear, is that the latter is true always. It’s a fact that exists regardless belief, mood, perspective, or measurement.


I wrote the idea for this post down months ago, but it seemed relevant as this week I embarked on teaching my algebra II class how to factor polynomials. Something that nobody does, with the exception of math teachers and their students. (And I mean that quite literally. I went to the twittersphere and came up empty.) My advice to students was similar to other seemingly obscure content we learn in mathematics.

Treat these problems like puzzles and look for the patterns.

Because pattern finding, curiosity, and creativity in problem solving are all skills that are valuable and can be improved with practice.

Nobody does a puzzle and while they’re doing it says, “This is never going to help me in my life.” I don’t claim to be an expert on the motivation of puzzlers, but I did puzzles just to figure them out. I enjoyed the mental exercise.

This is how I want my students to approach math problems. I want them to enjoy and appreciate the pursuit of solving the problem. I know that’s abstract and might be difficult for teenagers to grab onto, but I’m not sure of any other justification for some of the concepts we teach.

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The Classroom I want to Visit (and someday have)

You walk in and are immediately taken by the number of students either focused and working independently (often with ear buds in) or quietly collaborating. The teacher is difficult to find at first but then you find her, huddled around a whiteboard working out a few different ways to approach a problem involving polynomial equations. The furniture is easy to move and comfortable. Small tables for small groups, single desks scattered around the room, with oversized chairs scattered around as well. The walls are neutral colors, not the standard white that bounces fluorescent light almost as well as a mirror. As you look around a brief, friendly, argument erupts in the corner over why long division of polynomials is more pure than synthetic division. The teacher then stands up, walks around the room checking on students, snapping pictures of student work with her iPad. She then projects some mistakes she found students had done and the class discusses the thinking that led to them. There are rugs, art on the walls, a laptop cart in the corner, and a projector screen towards the front (or what you assume is the front) of the room.


I read an article recently called “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks”. This got me thinking, again, about learning environments. This topic sparks a few questions in my mind:

  • What are environments that I prefer to learn in?
  • What makes an environment conducive to learning?
  • How do you develop an environment that can be easily transitioned from independent work to collaborative work to whole class work and everything in between?
  • How much is my classroom layout getting in the way of learning?

To at least partially answer these questions I don’t think Starbucks is a bad model, in some respects, for what a great learning environment looks like. Obviously Starbucks is more conducive to independent learning, but I like some of the big ideas.

Learning environments should be comfortable

I can see that if you wanted kids to avoid falling asleep you would make the seating uncomfortable. I’d rather make the classwork engaging enough that students don’t fall asleep. I’m not saying we should all work in bean bag chairs. I’d hate doing real work in a bean bag chair. But I’m not everybody and I don’t hate the idea of having options like that for students that do prefer to work in the type of seating.

And comfortable learning environments go beyond just the furniture. Rugs, art, music, lighting, and the teacher’s attitude all contribute significantly to the environment.

Learning environments should be flexible

As technology changes the way content is delivered and the way that students interact with content, the classroom should change. The amount of time a teacher spends lecturing to the entire class should probably be decreasing. This means that the work done by students in class will be more fractured. Some students may need to watch instructional videos. Some may be writing blog posts. Some may be working on a group project. Some may be using computer graphing technology. The teacher may need to work with some students that have been absent. The teacher may need to give a lecture to the entire class.

This is the future of learning. The class setup needs to support this.

Learning environments should be safe

I don’t mean that students shouldn’t feel like someone is going to physically hurt them, although that is obviously true. I’m saying that students shouldn’t walk in and feel like they’re in a place where mistakes are not valued, their opinion is not wanted or their thoughts are better kept to themselves. This doesn’t have much to do with a “Starbucks classroom”, but I thought it worth noting.


In all seriousness, I want to visit a classroom that has these characteristics, so if you teach in Michigan and have a classroom environment similar to the one I described, then I’d love to observe a lesson!

Any other thoughts on classroom environment? Anything I missed? Drop a comment below!

4 ways to leave School at School

If you had told me that it would take me 5 years of teaching to figure out how to mentally leave work at work then I might not have continued in this career. I’ve gotten incrementally better at it each year but this year I’ve committed to prioritizing it. Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help me do that. I hope you can, especially if you’re just starting out, find a piece of advice that will help you live a more balanced life.

Before you leave work

I use a to-do list like it’s a religion, so before I leave school I go through my list (in Todoist) and do three things.

  • I check off everything I completed but forgot to check off during the day.
  • I look for anything on the list that can be taken care of in less than two minutes. If time permits, I do those things. I schedule times to do the other tasks.
  • I look for any task I can do now, that will save me exponentially more time in the future.

This leaves me cognitive space for the way home and when I get home. I don’t have to worry about when I’m going to tweak that lesson, write that letter of rec, or grade those papers. I may have 20 tasks to do in the next 24 hours but each one has a time pinned to it.

The drive home

First, if you have more than a few minutes to drive from work to home, leverage that time to mentally leave work. I’ll do a few things to do this, depending on how the day went.

  • If I it was an especially busy day and I have lot’s on my mind I will ride in silence and simply let my mind think about whatever it wants in regards to school. It’s like letting a cold run it’s course. I just get out of the way and let my mind go. Although I am thinking about work, this gives my mind a chance to empty. If I don’t, like if I turn on a podcast or audiobook, I find that although I distract myself during the ride, my concerns about work pop back when I get home. If I empty my brain in this way, I don’t think about work nearly as much at home.
  • After I’ve done the above, or if I don’t think I need to, I often listen to stand up comedy. Laughing puts me in a good mood and also helps me walk through the door with a positive attitude. I sometimes listen to novels or music that I’m really into. Anything that puts me in a good mood and provides for a transition from work to school.

Embrace the moment

Yeah, this is cliché, but if you take it to heart and try to frequently exercise this idea you’ll be in a better place at home (and at work). The success of this, at least for me, depends a lot on the previous two points. When I’m home I try to focus on my kid, my wife, my dog, cooking, or whatever I’m doing. This is important for me because I want to enjoy the limited time I have to spend with them. But it may be more important for them to have a husband/father that is present in the evening and not thinking about why 8 of my students blew off the activity from 3rd hour. (And by the way, I’m not gonna be able to fix it at that moment anyway, so it’s wasted cognitive energy.)

Understand you can’t fix everything

Somewhere deep in the dredges of my brain I used to think that if I just spent as much time as possible thinking about how to fix the problems that arose at school (or in education in general) then I’d be able to fix them.

This is obviously not the case.

I’ve found that teaching, not unlike many professions, is a push and pull between idealism and pragmatism. The fact is that there are a lot of problems that I can’t influence. And many problems I could influence, but only with a large amount of time and effort, that would end up with uncertain results.

The takeaway for me was that I need to pick and choose carefully the problems I’m going to tackle. And then only take on those problems that I have space in my cognitive bandwidth to deal with. If it means that I’ll be sitting at the dinner table trying to figure out how to solve the problem of poverty in my community or big money in high stakes testing, my resources are probably misdirected and infringing on my life in other ways.

They’re problems. I’d like to solve them. But I don’t have the time, skill set, or resources to do it. So I let them slide out of my mind.

I see teachers all the time that are just surviving. Trying to get from one hour to the next, getting beat up along the way, and then dragging all the stresses from school home with them. We are inclined to do this. We go into the profession to help kids and we love to see them succeed. When they aren’t, we take it personal. So it invades our personal lives. But I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s not worth it.

You can’t solve all the problems. There will always be kids that don’t meet their potential, think your activities are boring, have awful home lives, and otherwise break your heart. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, I’m just saying that I’ve gone the route of devoting an inordinate amount of mental and physical energy to worrying about it, and guess what. I still had those problems. And by trying to solve them all, all the time, I harmed myself (mentally through stress) and my relationships (stress spillover, not being present, etc.).

Take care of yourself and the time you do devote to your students and profession will be more effective.


This is something I’m passionate about. I know people always say, “post your thoughts in the comments”, but I really am curious as to where people are on this. Do you have other ideas for going home with a clear mind? Do you struggle with other aspects of work-life balance that I left out?

Panera Bread and Learning

In the last month I’ve become a Panera regular. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling and Panera was as close to fast food as we were willing to go. Until the last month however I’d only been there a few times in several years, without being particularly impressed.

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image credit: nbcnews.to/29POCSz

Take a look at the menu above. This is what you encounter when you walk into Panera Bread for the first time. Seven sections of menu packed with different dining options. For the less food savvy among us, not only is the menu packed with stuff, but it’s packed with a lot of stuff that is unfamiliar. In my first couple of visits I stood there bewildered for a while, let my friend order, then picked something with turkey in it.

Because I was pretty sure I knew what turkey was.

Well, I was wrong. I mean, I think the thing had turkey in it. But everything else did not complement the turkey in a positive way.

The next time I went there with a few colleagues I ordered a caesar salad. Why? Because every time I’ve ever ordered a caesar salad in a restaurant I haven’t been surprised by what came out. The same was true for this visit.

Sweet. I found something on the menu without holding up the four people behind me.But after that I avoided Panera for a while. A long while. I could get a caesar salad from a lot of places. The notion of standing there in line trying to find something different felt as though it would only bring frustration.

Then my wife and I were looking for something quick and healthy to eat, so we decided, to my slight dismay, to give it another try.

This time however, on the way there my wife looked up the menu on her phone and read off several items, describing them from their website. When we walked in I knew several of the items on the menu, how it worked (that “pick 2” thing for example) and was basically ready to order when I walked up. We’ve been there a couple of times since and now it’s one of my favorite restaurants. Since I’m confident in my understanding of the menu, I try new items, ask questions about different types of food, etc.

How does this relate to learning?

Think about the first time you encountered an unfamiliar topic and tried to learn it. This was difficult at first but I can certainly think back to math lectures (here’s lookin’ at you, Linear Algebra) in which there was new notation, vocabulary, and concepts and it all felt unfamiliar.

However, once I got with my peers and we began working through the problems (encountering the “menu” multiple times) the concepts began to feel more familiar. I realized that I knew more about them than what I thought (romaine and kale! Hey, I know what those are…). The more I worked individually and with my peers the clearer the concepts became.

If I avoided doing the exercises or only did it individually, that feeling of everything being foreign never really went away. Usually parts of the notation would be confusing. Or the instructions around a problem wouldn’t make sense. Or I could start a problem, but get lost in trying to solve it, etc.

A couple points can be pulled from this. First, a student’s first exposure to a topic is incredibly important. If you drop seven new vocab words and a gaggle of new notation on students at 8:00am on Monday morning you’re bound have a large group of students not wanting to come back to the menu you just presented them.

Even if they should know most of the food on there.

So we have to think carefully about how students first engage with content. The second point is helping students understand that multiple engagements with a concept will (usually) alleviate this feeling. I think many students never go back to the restaurant because they don’t want to be embarrassed for not knowing what their peers may already know. We have to help students be comfortable with this phase of unfamiliarity (my study group in college was a place I felt comfortable being wrong), and develop tasks that help them engage with the concept in safe, productive ways (investigating the menu on the way).

For a great post on how students see unfamiliar mathematics check out Ben Orlin’s recent post entitled What Students See When They Look at Algebra.


Alternative Titles

“What’s on that sandwich? Oh… will that be on the test?”

“How Avocado Ruins Education”

“I don’t even like lettuce so why should I be learning about salads?”