Bait the hook for math thinking

In his wonderful TEDx talk, Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher in Santa Cruz, CA, explains how he gets students who are “mathematically and conversationally intimidated” to formulate math problems themselves — based on their genuine curiosity about the world.

Meyer presents kids with everyday phenomena (like a hose slowly filling a big container in the school courtyard) and asks them simple questions (“How long will it take to fill up?”). Instead of memorizing formulas (or copying them from already-solved examples), his students practice “patient problem-solving.” Slowly, steadily, in small groups, they check out their intuitions and formulate their own reasoning.

Meyer recommends five rules of thumb for math teachers, including “Ask the shortest question you can” and “Let students build the problem.” He asserts: “The math serves the conversation, the conversation doesn’t serve the math!”

It’s another way of saying that Motivation + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.


4 thoughts on “Bait the hook for math thinking

  1. Wow. I’m a huge Dan Meyer fan, but I found this completely independently of anything Dan-related. A parent sent me a link to your site, since I’ve talked a lot about the 10,000 Hours Theory to my students, and low and behold–Dan Meyer!

    The fact that you stumbled accross Dan’s speech means you must be looking in some good places. Keep up the good work.

  2. I like Dan’s idea of motivating students through questions to solve problems. I sometimes do a similar thing in a 10th grade history class. The first day in the fall I start the class by asking, “What do historians do? What do people do when they ‘do history’?”
    Soon the students come up with a great list: pose questions, plan research, do research, write, present orally, question others, do interviews, defend conclusions, relate historical events to current events, and so on. They notice right away the absence of such activities as color maps, take vocabulary quizzes, and listen to endless lectures. With this as a starter, the students expected serious work about real questions, and not just covering what was in the next chapter of the book.

  3. I am very excited that I came across this video on the website. As a new teacher I have been struggling to get students interested in the mathematics curriculum – or to “bait the hook” as Dan Meyer talked about. Finding a way to motivate students and get them invested in math has been challenging.
    Recently I was teaching circumference to a class of 8th graders. I scanned the book and additional worksheets to find problems that I thought would be relevant to students, problems I thought would get them interested in finding circumference. I chose four stories to give to students to work on that each involved finding the circumference of an object. During the task, I had several students asking about the same story problem. I quickly realized that the problem the students were asking about had extraneous information in the story. The story gave the students 2 numbers and they had to determine which piece of information was needed to find the circumference. The story labeled one piece of information as the height of a Ferris wheel and the second piece of information as the diameter of the Ferris wheel. During the activity I noticed two things about my students, many of my students had an aversion to word problems and several other students were eager to plug numbers into a formula. The problems that I had assigned to make circumference relevant to students, fell into what Dan Meyer calls sitcom sized problems. Each problem explicitly asked for the circumference of the circle and gave a measurement that was labeled as either the radius or the diameter.
    One thing that Dan Meyer talked about in this video is that it would be difficult to find a real life problem where the problem gave every piece of information that was needed and no other information, but this is exactly what the story problems I assigned did. My students can easily solve circumference problems if you explicitly tell them that you are looking for the circumference and you give them a measurement that is labeled the radius or diameter, but this is not a real life situation… these “sitcom sized” problems will not lead to deliberate practice. I think that Dan Meyer had some great ideas on how to get students invested in the curriculum and I am excited to bring those ideas to the classroom. As a new teacher, a student teacher, I have been nervous to step away from how I learned mathematics – where a teacher lectured and delivered the information. I have been nervous about letting the students explore mathematics through discussion because facilitating a discussion can be intimidating – the students are very creative and will ask questions or bring up topics I have not thought about… Although I am nervous about trying new things, this video has made me excited to rethink my teaching practice.
    I am excited to utilize some of the techniques that Meyer talked about. I am excited to ask the shortest question I can and let my students decide which details they need to know and which specific questions are important. I am excited to let my students discuss mathematics.

  4. Great comment, Kristen! I have learned so much about math teaching by subscribing to Dan Meyer’s blog–every day some new insight. This past week I interviewed students in San Diego whose teacher was also a fan, and they talked eloquently about how differently they came to think about math as the course went on. One girl said, “I think he subconsciously trains us to like, use our minds, by all the things he does. Most other teachers, they teach you what they have to, but here he teaches us not only the math we have to know but kind of like refines the math that we used to know.” Her friend added, “You know it, but you also know where it comes from.” I’ll be writing more about that soon–hope you’ll check back in!

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