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Find what you love. Do more of that. [#tmc15]

Here is the text of the keynote I planned to give at Twitter Math Camp. Actual product may have varied substantially in content (but not in spirit) from the typed original.

If you’ve never seen me talk in a large group you’ll have to imagine the energy, cadence and passion you see in my ShadowCon talk brought to this longer form.

Thanks to the Twitter Math Camp organizing committee for inviting me to talk, and to the whole community for supporting my work over the years. It means a lot; I hope to return the favor many times over.

Lisa Henry’s introduction:

Christopher Danielson teaches and writes in Minnesota. You may know him through his documentation of his children’s mathematical antics on Talking Math with Your Kids, through his exhortations not to share bad “Common Core” homework assignments on Facebook, or through his shapes book Which One Doesn’t Belong?

Of course you may not know him at all. But if you do, you’ll recognize that he holds little sacred besides the responsibility we take on in this profession to foster the growth of young minds.

He is currently working on a teacher guide for Which One Doesn’t Belong? to be published by Stenhouse in the spring. He encourages each and every one of you to promote the heck out of Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies. Most of his time this summer is devoted to bringing Math On-A-Stick—a new event to support children and caregivers in informal math activities—to the Minnesota State Fair, and he continues to work with Desmos on developing online networked classroom activities such as Polygraph and Function Carnival.

This is a very American talk about teaching. From what I’ve learned about teaching in other countries with robust educational systems—Singapore, Finland, Japan, Germany, and so on—the U.S. is unique in its tradition of sink-or-swim for teachers.

We equip new teachers with a modest set of tools and experiences, and we say Do the best you can with what you’ve got!

At the policy level, we understand that this is a disaster. But in the American fashion we try to legislate and standardize our way to improvement. We issue pacing guides and measure fidelity to adopted texts. And of course we measure teacher quality by testing students in an effort to standardize learning.

In this sense, the message of my talk today is a very American one. My message is this: Find what you love. Do more of that.


Viewed one way, this is advice to teachers trying to survive and to serve their students well in the era of NCLB and high-stakes testing. (There are probably several such folks in our midst today.)

And that will be a valuable takeaway, but it’s not the heart of my talk. The heart of my talk is more forward-looking and hopeful.

Sending minimally prepared teachers into the field, leaving them to figure it out on their own, and then evaluating whether they have—these things we do well in this country. If you believe that quality comes from sorting out the bad apples, then we’ve built a good machine for this, and the major impediment to improving it is the unions. I assume that this is familiar rhetoric.

What we don’t do well is orient and induct teachers to a community of professionals. We don’t structure our communities to draw on the diverse strengths and passions of its members. This is something that I understand those other nations I mentioned do much better than we do.


For me, the group assembled here, together with the ones who would be here if they could, and many more of the teaching professionals we interact with—whether regularly or sporadically—for me, this group is a community. A community that grows and changes in response to the contributions of its members. It’s not a community that agrees on everything—no community can while remaining honest, open and vibrant. Instead, disagreements offer healthy opportunities for the community and its individual members to grow.

So the hopeful vision in my message (Find what you love. Do more of that.) is that in identifying where your heart is in this profession, you can strengthen your voice and focus your efforts as you contribute to and help shape this community. What our larger American educational system does poorly—foster a professional community that grows and responds to the diverse strengths of its members—the MTBoS does quite well.

So I put two big questions in front of you:

What do you love?

How can you incorporate more of that in what you do? (In your classroom and in your community)

When I ask, What do you love? I don’t want to hear that you love…

Rectangles or stats or 3-Act Lessons or Spirals or Technology or Groups.

I want you to dig deeper. Those things embody what you really love. Whatever you are truly passionate about is bigger than these things. If you can say why you love rectangles or stats or whatever, you’ll be closer to the kind of thing I have in mind.

So now I’ll tell you what I love and how that—in the context of what I have to do—helps to guide my teaching and my contributions to our community.

This is so nerdy. I really hope this is a safe space for this.

I love ambiguity.

The spaces between the certainties are much more interesting to me than the certainties themselves. Ambiguity can provoke wonder, surprise, reflection and clarification.

I’ll share with you how I incorporate this love in the work I do in the classroom and in our community. Let’s start with a video.

This video lacks ambiguity.

Children are smarter than this.

Children can handle ambiguity, which is what I have found so appealing about the Which One Doesn’t Belong framework. (Megan Franke and Terry Wyberg mentions)

In case you aren’t familiar with it, I’ll give you the rap I give kids.


Let me tell you what children say in response to this richer set of shapes. 


[do that]

As they talk about these things, I summarize, paraphrase, probe, review and restate. By the time we’re done, we have a list of properties of shapes. Which of these properties are they supposed to use in deciding which one doesn’t belong? Which of these properties are important? Which ones matter? It depends.

Here’s another set of shapes. 


Sometimes ambiguity comes from studying new objects for which we don’t have a repertoire of vocabulary.

Which properties are important? Which ones matter?

We don’t know yet when we’re looking at a new class of objects. But when we do agree that a property is important, we can name it.

So all that vocabulary which is associated with geometry—that vocabulary isn’t important on its own. Instead it points to important properties, or to properties which somebody has deemed important.

(A non-math example: at some point, it became clear that this growing collection of math teachers online needed naming. The community’s historians are still working on the lineage of the phrase mathtwitterblogosphere and the abbreviation mtbos, The point is that the name exists because there was a thing that needed naming)

Here is what kids do with the ambiguity of the spirals.

[say what that is]

One last WODB example.


The shape in the lower right is the one that provokes discussion. (get to vertices)

Returning to the theme of what you have to do…

In my capacity as a College Algebra teacher, I have to teach rational functions.

Lots of rules and vocabulary and certainty are associated with standard textbook treatments of rational functions. There are asymptotes (vertical, horizontal, oblique…), rules to go along with locating these. There are zeroes and intercepts and symmetries and on and on…

So I played Polygraph: Rationals with my students.


The design of Polygraph is that it puts you in the position of needing to describe to somebody else what you see before you have a shared vocabulary for it—as with WODB. But now importance has an implicit definition. A property is important if it’s useful for distinguishing between functions, and for helping your partner to do that too.

At the beginning of the game ,we shuffle the functions to suggest to you that location in the grid isn’t important. But maybe you think it is. So you ask about it. And you’re likely to get burned.

Orientation, by the way, is important in this context. The difference between 1/x and -1/x is one of orientation.


So orientation doesn’t matter in plane geometry, but it does matter in coordinate algebra.

And the graph on the left is a function, but the one on the right isn’t.


Orientation matters.

But these are both squares.


(Tangentially related…How far can you turn a parabola and have it still be a function?)


I’ll finish with an example from the community. Meg Craig cares about kindness and empathy. She wrote about this on her blog recently. She urged us all to remember that We as teachers are all trying, to the best of our ability, to have students reach the best of their ability.  If you haven’t read this post, you need to.


That kind of thing has a lasting impact on our community. Just the other day, I got worked up about fences. 


There is so much wrong here. Unambiguously wrong, and I called it out. Then I was thinking later that day. OK. That was angry Triangleman. What could kinder gentler Triangleman do?

Well, what do I do in my classroom? What do I do at home with my children? In both of these contexts, I educate patiently. I accept people for where they are and I try to help them see new perspectives; to think differently about things than they do right now.

What does that look like on Twitter? I don’t know. It really is such a great medium for ranting. But I do know that the reason I’m asking myself this is that MathyMeg brought her strengths and passions to our community.


I told you to find what you love, and to do more of that. I told you that I love ambiguity. Maybe you’re the opposite of me. Maybe what you love is certainty in mathematics. How can you help your students appreciate and understand the unique nature of mathematical truth (different from all other disciplines)?

Maybe your heart is with the beauty of geometric forms, or the rhythmic regularity of patterning. Maybe you love how statistics can inform us as we strive to make equitable decisions in an unjust world.

Truth, beauty, regularity, fairness…

Each of these is a more important grounding for your classroom perspective than a pacing guide or textbook sequencing. But none of them is antithetical to these either. What you love can be found in what you have to do.

So my message to you is simple. Name what you love—be explicit about what makes your mathematical heart sing; what resonates in the depth of your teacher soul—and look for it in every corner of your professional life. Share with your students and share it with us, your colleagues and your community.

EdCamp for Science and Math

My fellow Minnesotans, we no longer have a formal Fall Conference in mathematics education.

You can either shed a tear or do something about it. (or both)

If you choose the latter, join me and a whole bunch of others at EdCamp Math and Science MN.

It is free. It takes place Friday, October 17 (during MEA weekend).

See you there.

Replying to an email [#ccss]

My 5 Reasons Not to Share post has gained new life in the last week. It is evidently being shared widely on Facebook.

One consequence of this is that I am getting daily emails from people who read the piece and feel moved to comment. I do believe the Internet ought to facilitate dialogue. So I have been replying to these emails.

Sometimes, people leave a wrong email address in the contact form and they bounce back. So, in a show of good faith, I share with you a recent email and my reply. Perhaps Gavin will come back to the blog and read my reply. Perhaps he will not.

Anyway, here goes.

Gavin writes:

I do not know if you failed to do your research, but the number line is clearly part of Common Core, for instance:

Understand a rational number as a point on the number line. Extend number line diagrams and coordinate axes familiar from previous grades to represent points on the line and in the plane with negative number coordinates.”

I am not sure how to comment on the article because you have banned commenting on them. I do not have a twitter and therefore cannot join the disucssion there. I hope that you’re not intentionally trying to cast a positive light on Common Core but are instead trying to give an unbiased account of it.

I reply:

Thank you for taking the time to read, and to write.

I just want to clarify that my claim was not that number lines do not appear in the Common Core. They do appear there, as you point out with your citation. You are completely correct.

But if I remember correctly, the worksheet in question was a second grade worksheet. My claim was this: “There is nothing in the Common Core State Standards that requires students to use number lines to perform multi-digit subtraction.”

I stand by that claim. Even the number line standard you cite in sixth grade doesn’t reference the number line as a way to understand multi-digit subtraction. Instead the spirit of that standard is to use the number line as a way to represent negative numbers (such as -9 or -1/2), and then to understand the coordinate plane. Simply put, if students are going to graph functions in algebra, they will need to work with number lines in earlier grades.

As for the comments thing…I was saddened to have to turn them off for that 5 reasons post. But I am committed to maintaining a reasoned and productive tone on this blog. The comments (both pro- and con- on the Common Core) were spiraling out of control and I simply did not have the time to manage them. It seems clear to me that people are able to comment on the piece as it gets shared on Facebook, but I don’t have access to the comments on other people’s shares so I cannot speak to their quality, and I am not responsible for them in the way I am when they are on my blog.

Finally, you can search my blog for “Common Core” and find that I have made some rather pointed critiques of some specific standards in the Common Core—including engaging and arguing with Bill McCallum (a Common Core author) on matters involving rates, ratios and unit rates. All on the record, and you would be welcome to join the conversation in comments on those posts. I have no interest in promoting CCSS. I do have an interest in making sure that critiques are honest and fair.

Best wishes and thanks again for writing.



The child says “six”

Tabitha (7 years old), Griffin (9 years old) and I walked to the local convenience store tonight. We had a math talk that I will describe in more detail on Talking Math with Your Kids soon.

In the meantime, I will excerpt a piece of that conversation here. It will give us some useful language and ideas.

Tabitha was using her own money to buy some hot Cheetos. She was under the impression that they would cost $1.35. While she waited in line, she had me verify that her 5 quarters and 1 dime matched this sum. I assured her that it did.

The Cheetos turned out to cost $1.49.

There were people in line behind her. This was a time to grease the wheels, not to slow down everybody else’s Saturday evening. So I told her to give the cashier 2 more dimes.

As she did so, I told her that she had given the man 20 more cents when he only needed 14 more cents, and asked her how much change she should get.

The cashier finished off the transaction. I stuck out my hand to grab her change (so as not to give away the answer to the question I was about to ask, and she was way more interested in the Cheetos anyway). We turned to leave.

I asked how much change she should get back. She seemed confused by the question. After going back and forth a couple of times, we settled on this question:

14 plus something is 20; what is the something?

Now we get to the question I pose to you, Dear Reader.

What is the goal of asking a child this question?

There are many possible goals, of course. I want to highlight two of these. I think that they stand in stark opposition to each other.

  1. To get the child to say, “six”.
  2. To get the child to think about number relationships.

Six is the right answer. I would like for her to be able to get there. But getting her to say, “six” is not the goal of the question for me.

Before I elaborate, I want to make clear that this is not a straw man argument.

Griffin piped up while Tabitha was thinking and asked, “How old were you last year?” The only thing that question had in common with mine was the answer. I have been in math classrooms where teachers offered these kinds of hints.

So not a straw man at all.

While the video below is supposed to be funny, it draws on this idea that the goal is to get the child to say (write) the answer.


My goal in asking this question is to get the child to think about number relationships. I want Tabitha to think her way through to an answer. I want her to be able to say, “six,” yes. But I will be happy with a few productive wrong answers along the way because that will be an indication that she is thinking.

You see, options 1 and 2 above speak to very different ideas about how people get better at mathematics.

Option 1 speaks to the idea that fourteen plus something is twenty is a problem that has the same structure as many other problems (this plus that is something else) but that bears no other relationship to them.

Option 1 is related to a behaviorist view of mathematics learning—that we create associations between stimulus and response, and that learning is the formation and strengthening of these associations. With this view, fourteen plus something is twenty is a unique stimulus that requires a unique response: “six”. The strong version of this view would require me to tell her the answer, have her repeat the answer, and to make sure I ask her about fourteen plus something is twenty again in the near future in order to strengthen the bond.

Option 2, by contrast, speaks to the idea that learning arithmetic is about becoming familiar with number relationships. Option 2 suggests that fourteen plus something is twenty is not an especially important problem on its own, but that it provides us with a place to practice noticing and using relationships in order to strengthen our familiarity with these relationships.

The thing I need to do if Tabitha is struggling with fourteen plus something is twenty is very different if I choose option 2. I need to think about what related problem is likely to be easier for her than this one. I need to think about how to help her make progress.

Here, the most likely productive direction (based on what I know about her, and about her mathematics learning experiences) is to ask:

Do you know this one? Fifteen plus something is twenty. 

She probably knows that five is correct here. This is because she has counted by fives many times. Once she establishes that fifteen plus five is twenty, she will likely be able to reason that fourteen plus six is twenty. Fourteen is one less than fifteen, so the other addend must be bigger to get the same sum. She wouldn’t say it that way, of course, but she can think that way.

She can think that way for two reasons: (1) it is natural for children to think this way, and (2) this sort of thinking has been modeled, supported and encouraged.

In short, I and her teachers have taught her in ways that support powerful mathematical thinking.

What we see in the video above does not support that. While I (mostly) get the joke, it is not so far from the truth. This is precisely what goes on in many classrooms and homes. The parent does not ask the child what he is thinking. The child has gotten the message that there is a right way to perform the computation, and that it involves the 4 turning into something else. The whole thing is a mess and it is very very true.

It is too true.

Everything about that interaction needs to change. Everything.

But really, if we change one thing we’ll be on our way to changing everything.

It is a big change, of course.

We need to stop worrying about the child says, “six”. We need to start worrying about how (and whether) the child is thinking.

Wiggins question #6

Question 6

A catering company rents out tables for big parties. 8 people can sit around a table. A school is giving a party for parents, siblings, students and teachers. The guest list totals 243. How many tables should the school rent?

This is a classic example demonstrating the danger of applying procedures without thinking. The quotient can be expressed either as 31, remainder 3; or as 31 \frac{3}{8}. Neither of these answers the question, though. According to unspoken principles of table renting, we will probably need 32 tables.

Of course, I can imagine a student thinking like a caterer and building any of the following arguments:

  • We need 31 tables (or fewer) because 5% of people on a typical guest list do not show up.
  • We need 31 tables because if everyone comes, several will be young children who will sit in their parents’ laps.
  • We need 31 tables—if everyone shows up, we can just stick an extra chair at each of three tables.
  • We need at least 35 tables: No one wants to sit on the side where they can’t see the band playing at the front of the room, so we need to allow for fewer than 8 people at each table.
  • Et cetera.

I would argue that we need to teach in ways that do two things:

  1. Allow/force students to interpret their computational results in light of the context (there is a CCSS Mathematical Practice standard about this), and
  2. Focus students’ attention on the role the computation plays in answering this kind of question. Why are we dividing? and What does the quotient mean? are the kinds of questions I have in mind here.

Wiggins questions #3

Question 3

You are told to “invert and multiply” to solve division problems with fractions. But why does it work? Prove it.

Oh dear. If anyone on the Internet has had more to say about dividing fractions than I have, I am unaware of who that is. (And, for the record, I would like to buy that person an adult beverage!)

Unlike the division by zero stuff from question 1, this question is better tackled with informal notions than with formalities. The formalities leave one feeling cold and empty, for they don’t answer the conceptual why. The formalities will invoke the associative property of multiplication, the definition of reciprocal, inverse and the multiplicative identity, et cetera.

The conceptual why—for many of us—lies in thinking about fractions as operators, and in thinking about a particular meaning of division.

1. A meaning of division

There are two meanings for division: partitive (or sharing) and quotative (or measuring). The partitive meaning is the most common one we think of when we do whole number division. I have 12 cookies to share equally among 3 people. How many cookies does each person get? We know the number of groups (3 in this example) and we need to find the size of each group.

When dividing by a fraction, partitive division means that we know the fractional part of a group we have, and we need to find the size of a whole group.

I can mow 4 lawns with \frac{2}{3} of a tank of gas in my lawnmower is a partitive division problem because I know what \frac{2}{3} of a tank can do, and I want to find what a whole tank can do. So performing the division 4\div \frac{2}{3} will answer the question.

2. Fractions as operators

When I multiply by a fraction, I am making things larger (if the fraction is greater than 1), or smaller (if the fraction is less than 1, but still positive).

Scaling from (say) 5 to 4 requires multiplying 5 by \frac{4}{5}. Scaling from 4 to 5 requires multiplying by \frac{5}{4}. This relationship always holds—reverse the order of scaling and you need to multiply by the reciprocal.

putting it all together

Back to the lawnmower. There is some number of lawns I can mow with a full tank of gas in my lawnmower. Whatever that number is, it was scaled by \frac{2}{3} to get 4 lawns. Now we need to scale back to that number (whatever it is) in order to know the number of lawns I can mow with a full tank.

So I need to scale 4 up by \frac{3}{2}.

Now we have two solutions to the same problem. The first solution involved division. The second solution involved multiplication. They are both correct so they must have the same value. Therefore,

4\div \frac{2}{3} = 4 \cdot \frac{3}{2}

There was nothing special about the numbers chosen here, so the same argument applies to all positive values.


We have to be careful about zero. Negative numbers behave the same way as positive numbers in this case, since the associative and commutative properties of multiplication will let us isolate any values of -1 and treat everything else as a positive number.

More on partitive fraction division here.

Please note that you do not need to invert and multiply to solve fraction division problems. You can use common denominators, then divide just the resulting numerators. You can use common numerators, then use the reciprocal of the resulting denominators. Or you can just divide across as you do when you multiply fractions. The origins of the strong preference for invert-and-multiply are unclear.

The future of math

Nothing important here. But in case you’re into this sort of thing, we had some fun on Twitter this morning imagining the future of math. Click on through if you like.