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A hunger for good learning

Take a few minutes to watch Dan Meyer (@ddmeyer) talk about a makeover of the math curriculum in this TedxNYED session. Dan does a brilliant job of explaining why textbooks fail, why they don’t help kids learn, why they should do less.

I particularly like Dan’s deconstruction of textbooks and teaching: be less helpful. His key insight is not to give kids the problem but invite them to consider the problem. Discovery is what engages them in learning. Creating a physical demonstration of filling a container with water trumps words on paper supported by line art.

Dan’s Math Curriculum Makerover made me think of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. (You can watch the Food Revolution program on ABC or view Oliver’s TED Talk. He writes: “I believe that every child in America has the right to fresh, nutritious school meals, and that every family deserves real, honest, wholesome food.”

Here’s how he’s framed the issue of childhood obesity:

  • Kids are not eating good food.
  • They don’t know what good food is because they don’t get good food. They get processed food.
  • They are addicted to processed food.
  • They are served processed food in the school lunchroom and at home.
  • Teach kids to cook.
  • Get school lunchrooms to serve good food.
  • Involve parents so that they know what good food is, why it matters and how they can make it at home.
  • If a community understands that they can choose good food, will they choose to break the addiction to processed food?

Jamie and Dan both have me thinking about a campaign for a child’s right to good learning, which is “real, honest and wholesome.” Textbooks are the equivalent of processed food — they are processed learning. The learning’s all been done for you. As Dan Meyer says, you just have to know how to decode the text and you get the answers easily. If you don’t mind this tedious task, you’ll do well. But it’s not real learning. It’s not what we experience when we learn in real life.

I imagine a Jamie Oliver crusader walking into a classroom and telling kids to pitch the textbooks in a dumpster. He gets them out from behind the desks, gets them off their butts and gets them doing stuff. “We’re natural-born learners,” he might say. “Learning is something that all of us do so well — we are doing it all the time. All of us are hungry to learn.”

What Dan is talking about is giving kids the opportunity to learn: they explore and discover; they see problems and want to solve them; they want to develop and use tools to learn. This is how they become engaged. They naturally want to do these things for themselves because it is part of them making sense of the world and who they are. That’s what Dan says math can do for you and that’s what good learning is all about.

That’s also why I get excited about organizing Maker Faire, now in its fifth year. It’s an especially intensive learning opportunity created by a community of people who are sharing what they are doing. Maker Faire offers a feast for people of all ages who love good learning: it’s authentic, inspiring and satisfying. One day, perhaps, we’ll see a Maker Revolution that changes what we’re trying to do in our schools and our communities, replacing education with good learning.

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  • Alik Levin

    Very good one.
    Loved it a lot and it got me seriously thinking.
    BTW, this “wholesome” thing i can easily apply to many other areas too, like software engineering. and some more.

  • Kevin Munk

    I’ve got a few great math questions. How long will it take to drive to Las Vegas? How many hours will I have to work to become a millionaire? How can we build a catapult?

  • Greg Wilson

    Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s paper, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching“ (Educational Psychologist, 2006) is a good summary of half a century’s research on the practice of letting students figure things out for themselves. Long story short, it’s less effective for people who are new to a subject than guided methods. As the authors say, though, every decade or so someone reinvents the idea under a new name.

  • Enrico Poli

    First of all: I’m writing from Italy, my English might be wobbly, bear with me.

    I do agree that some hands-on experience should be part of our children education.

    But I believe that sentences as:

    «Creating a physical demonstration of filling a container with water trumps words on paper supported by line art.»

    Words on paper, figures on paper, diagrams support abstract thought. You should be able to calculate the volume of the water in a solid *without* having the need of the water and the empty solid made of glass (or a computer to simulate everything on, so it’s cheaper, for that matter). Symbols were invented for this job, and they were a great idea. School should teach that – maybe it fails to, but then it should just struggle to do it better. Else, our children will be factory workers, good to build things dreamed up with words, figures and lines in some foreign nation :-)

    Don’t misunderstand me: being able to build or test things yourself is important (or, at least, it’s important to feel and be convinced that you wouldn’t totally unable to do that should the need arise). Informal education is great for that: there are science centers, Maker Faires, homebrewers’ associations etc.

    Should school give up to try to give our children *another* kind of education? Should we give up the distinction between formal and informal education? Should school become a sequence of Mr.Wizard-like activities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watch_Mr._Wizard)? (And mind you, I *love* Mr.Wizard :-))

    The article Greg points to it’s interesting too when considering these matters. Thanks, bye, Enrico

  • James

    I wish I had this teaching philosophy in my curriculum. Not that mine was bad, it was just different and this is just amazing.

  • Kathy Sierra

    @Greg “…every decade or so someone reinvents the idea under a new name.”

    True, and every decade or so someone dismisses a fresh approach by mistaking it for an old one.

    I can accept that by viewing only this one video, an experienced teacher could assume Dan is talking about nothing more than constructivist/discovery/minimally-guided instruction, especially given his advice to “Be Less Helpful.” But… look again.

    The difference between un-/minimally-guided instruction and Dan’s “Be Less Helpful” approach are significant. I think of his approach more as (the grammatically-challenged) “Be *Strategically* Less Helpful”. Dan’s approach takes a great DEAL of work on the part of the teacher to create and deliver a specific type of guidance that is both strategically withheld and revealed.

    As he suggests in the video, he uses the lessons of filmmakers. He is not advocating a lack of guidance, but a particular *form* of guidance that causes his students to move down a path as carefully as an expert filmmaker… to a conclusion that is (as filmmaker Murch put it) both “surprising yet self-evident.”

    Unlike some of the studies in the paper you point to, Dan is not trying to ask students to discover and perform the activities of The Discipline (in this case, mathematics). He is asking students to discover and perform the activities of… their own real life.

    I have never sat in Dan’s classroom… but the books my husband and I created are based on a somewhat similar perspective, and we have over a million copies in print. While not scientifically valid, that’s still an awful lot of data points.

  • arvind s grover

    full disclosure: I’m one of the organizers of TEDxNYED where Dan gave this speech

    I found Dale’s summary and call to action funny. Has anyone seen Dead Poet’s Society” with Robin Williams? That’s exactly what the teacher in the film does, tears the chapter out of the book defining poetry and forces the students to live poetry to learn it.

    Anyway, I think Kathy hits it on the head (and I love the fact that Kathy Sierra is comment on Dan Meyer, amazing!). Dan is about empowering his students to use their brains to wrestle with a concept. Any teacher can lead students down a straight and narrow path. A diligent teacher needs to work hard to teach students how to navigate the path on their own. Dan’s work does much of that by getting students to have more of a mathematical mind. If you want to see how he does it, read his blog. The lessons are superb: http://blog.mrmeyer.com.

  • Enrico Poli

    Well, sorry, in the previous post I was really reacting to Dale’s sentence (which I find worrying) and not Dan’s video.

    I’ve now seen the video too, and Dan’s critique of the exercises in textbooks in profound and masterful.

    It still totally loses me at the 7:50 time mark: filling up a *particular* container with a *particular* hose it’s… it’s just not math. I don’t understand what he’s doing there. It’s like asking the students how many beans are inside a particular jar (it could work as an exercise in estimate, but it’s not what he’s doing as far as I can understand).

  • Bob Denny

    Dale thanks so much for posting this! I have been on a mission to distill the issues around math and physics education and have developed some distillations. This added a lot. Again, thanks!