Math 2.0: What I’ve learned so far

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.

Example of a Smart Board installed over existing whiteboard

A typical Smart Board installation; the white board is rendered useless.

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.



9 responses to “Math 2.0: What I’ve learned so far

  1. I agree with your general thesis. However, I have to admit to really loving the SMART Boards. The new math classrooms at our college have a SMART Board in front for me, and whiteboards around the room for the students. I don’t use the SMART Board any differently than a whiteboard, but I get to export my writing as a PDF document and post them to the college Blackboard website. Also, we have the Symbodiums, which means I can face the class as I write.

    On-line homework systems like MyMathLab and Aleks are pieces of educational technology that have been adopted uncritically, in my opinion. We use MyMathLab in our developmental (non credit bearing) courses. After a few semesters, my department feels that the on-line homework doesn’t give an adequate sense of the students’ preparation.

    In the Kentucky community college system, each college is adopting some version of the Emporium model of teaching developmental classes. The Emporium replaces lectures with computer work, which makes heavy use of on-line homework. Even thought it is discouraged, we are still going to require hand-written assignments.

    In general, I think that Dan Meyer is on the right track. Unfortunately, every educational reform in the past decade has been doubling-down on the parts of American Education that are broken.

  2. I am interested in learning more about this. Do you recommend I start with his videos? Reading? etc. Thanks. 🙂

  3. Chris: “However, I have to admit to really loving the SMART Boards.”

    No shame in it, no need to apologize or “admit” anything. My beef is with the unquestioning adoption of the next technology. The set-up you describe sounds reasonable and allows for the use of what you need, when you need it. You have a Smart Board AND white boards. The classroom in my example above (and many, many others) have replaced the white boards with a Smart Board. This is often done without teacher consultation and based on a set of faulty assumptions.

    Alex: “I am interested in learning more about this.”

    The place to start is Dan’s TED talk, then spend some time with the escalator problem and browsing his blog. Alex, I happen to know that you are a middle school teacher. Dan is a high school teacher, so the classroom activities won’t go directly into your classroom. But the ideas apply across grade levels.

  4. Thanks for the write-up, Christopher. I’ve been meaning to get at you recently about SMART technology and how well you see it integrating with the CMP pedagogy. I suppose I may as well leave that query here. If you want to take it off the record, you know where to find me.

    For the record, this seems like your strongest sales pitch for a SMART Board:

    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.

    And I’m reluctant to pull out my wallet. Plural students? Can more than one student tap the roll button at a time? Would it be better to give pairs of students their own dice to roll?

  5. Chris writes:

    I don’t use the SMART Board any differently than a whiteboard

    I’d like to pick this assertion apart a bit. Part of my technology critique is that American teachers (present company included) don’t tend to use one classroom medium differently from another. If we have an overhead projector, we change slides frequently. If we have a whiteboard, we erase it frequently. If we have a Smart Board, we move to the next page in the Notebook more quickly. And we tend to use only a single medium at a time. So of course you don’t use your Smart Board any differently than a whiteboard, Chris. But you should. Maybe (and odds are, being an American teacher) it’s because you don’t use a whiteboard to its fullest potential as a record of the entire lesson. I know I don’t, and I’m working on improving it in my own teaching.

    Dan writes:

    …this seems like your strongest sales pitch for a SMART Board…And I’m reluctant to pull out my wallet.

    Just to be clear, I’m not pitching Smart Boards at all. I hope this comes across, but participant reactions to my standard conference presentation on Smart Boards suggest that it doesn’t always.

    We really do need to choose our classroom media carefully, and we need to add options, not substitute one for another. Smart Boards are more like overhead projectors than like whiteboards or chalkboards. They focus everyone’s attention on one thing at a time, rather than allow us to record the flow of information across an entire lesson. There’s a place for that, but it’s not the main role that classroom media should have and I strongly believe that a Smart Board has no business being front and center.

    But don’t take my word for it. Watch some of the videos at the site I linked to in the main post. Don’t just watch the one I chose out, watch a few. Search for some classroom Smart Board videos on YouTube. In most, you’ll find everyone looking at one thing at a time, no gathering of ideas over time and little use of other media. Please correct me if I’m wrong here. And these are the videos that are pitching Smart Boards.

    Dan continues:

    Plural students? Can more than one student tap the roll button at a time? Would it be better to give pairs of students their own dice to roll?

    Watch the first 30 seconds of the linked video. There is a pair of students. One taps, then the other, then one writes. Yes, it would be better to give pairs of students their own dice to roll. And their own worksheets on which to keep track of their results. Yes, that would be better. All kids would be involved simultaneously, much more data would be generated, all kids would get more practice with the basic addition facts that are at the heart of the lesson we see in the video.

    Dan asks an implicit question:

    I’ve been meaning to get at you recently about SMART technology and how well you see it integrating with the CMP pedagogy.

    By now, I hope it’s clear that this question strikes me as being equivalent to “How well does an overhead projector integrate with CMP pedagogy?” I think it’s neutral.

    That said, I do think that there are a number of lessons in CMP that a Smart Board can make more friendly to visual learners. I have slapped together a few Notebook files, which you can find on the Presentations page on my website. Each of these is a lesson in which I have found myself wanting to move images around on the whiteboard. A Smart Board lets me do that.

    But if you watch expert CMP teachers at work, one of the things they do frequently is have students put their work on public display for comparison. Poster paper is the best technology for this. Whiteboards are OK, but students have to reproduce their work. Smart Boards and overhead projectors make it hard to compare side-by-side.

    So are Smart Boards compatible with CMP? For sure. But they’re just one of many classroom media options. We need to choose wisely.

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