If you are reading this, the odds are very good that you have seen the Dan Meyer escalator video. If not, watch it before reading further.
I met Meyer recently and was quickly impressed by his work. I have spent the last couple of weeks digging deeper and thinking about what I and others can learn from it. Rather than presume to offer such sweeping assessments, I will offer some more modest observations by picking apart a single example from his catalog over the next few posts.
If you have ever been introduced to a new band and fallen in love with their music, then discovered that this is their fourth or fifth album, you know the delight I felt in getting started with Meyer’s blog. His TED talk was compelling. But he has years worth of this stuff in his back catalog and he’s producing more on a regular basis.
I was blown away by the escalator video. The novel use of multimedia, Meyer’s engaging presence, the mathematics suggested by the video, the delightful context and the detailed curriculum design; each contributes to a novel and impressive whole.
I’ll begin with technology.
Many, many dollars are being poured into technology in American K-12 classrooms. I question a lot of this spending.
I am particularly worried that we tend to be uncritical of classroom media. The TIMSS videos from the mid-1990’s provide a useful example. In a recent professional development session in which we watched excerpts of the American and Japanese geometry videos, a participant suggested that the chalkboard was being used as the teacher’s worksheet in the American classroom.
In The Teaching Gap, Stigler and Hiebert observed that overhead projectors were commonplace in American classrooms in the TIMSS video study and entirely absent from Japanese classrooms. They offered the justification that American teachers use classroom media to control student attention, while Japanese teachers use classroom media to record the flow of ideas over the course of a lesson. Overhead projectors are good for controlling student attention-they create a bright image that draws the eye. And they are poor at recording ideas over time-they have a limited display space and resolution so the teacher needs to frequently change slides. Therefore, American teachers find them to be useful tools, while Japanese teachers would find them completely impractical.
And consider the more modern example of a SmartBoard. My experience in classrooms is that these tend to be installed in such a way that they cover and therefore replace the pre-existing chalkboards-an uncritical replacement of the old technology (chalkboard or whiteboard) with the new.
What is more, SmartBoards tend not to be used to add substantially to the mathematics or the meaningful engagement in classrooms. In a typical video demonstration of Smart Boards in action, students tap the board to roll virtual dice and to write and keep track of the resulting sums. While the TIMSS video demonstrated the chalkboard as an American teacher’s worksheet, this video demonstrates the Smart Board as the class’s worksheet.
But it’s still a worksheet.
Meyer’s work breaks the mold. The escalator video is not at all interactive in the sense of the Smart Board. No way is Meyer inviting students to come to the front of the room to run his computer during this lesson.
Instead, he is using technology to issue a much more meaningful invitation to his students. He is inviting them to interact with mathematical ideas.
Everything about this video is inviting. Meyer’s intimate look into the camera at the beginning, the familiar world in which it is situated, the beautiful symmetry of the composed shot.
The standard American rhetoric on uses of technology in education revolves around having students operate the technology-bringing them to the Smart Board, having them design and deliver PowerPoint presentations, getting them to use graphing calculators to make graphs, etc.
Meyer thinks differently about educational technology. He wants to use multimedia to break down barriers between students and word problems. He wants technology to bring students’ lived experiences to bear on their mathematical inquiry. And he’s damn good at it.