Think Like a Fitbit: My Ignite! Talk Resources

Welcome back math nerds!  And if you’re new to Undercover Calculus, WELCOME!  I gave an Ignite! talk at the California Math Council’s conference in Palm Springs.  It was called “Think Like a Fitbit:  Measure What We Value.” It was an honor to be asked to speak, and I was grateful for the opportunity.

An Ignite! talk (for those who don’t know) is an hour long session where 10 speakers give a 5 minute talk about something inspiring.  As a speaker, you have 20 slides and they advance automatically every 15 seconds…whether you’re ready or not!  Good times.  Each talk ends with a “Call to Action,” an invitation for listeners to create some change in their thinking or practice moving forward.  It’s a quick-hit, action-packed hour of stimulating amazingness.

It’s also challenging to frame an inspiring argument with enough specific detail so that the call to action is, you know, actually actionable.

So, if you came to my talk and want to know more about these ideas, here are some resources.  I hope they further your thinking as much as they’ve furthered mine.  If you missed my talk, fear not!  I’ve attached a recording of the slide show and attached the movie at the end of this post.  Just scroll down.  Or you can stream the video of my actual talk on Vimeo.  You’ll want to watch it to make sense of the resources and why I’m offering them.  You can also read this previous post on mine too if you’d like.

Lastly, I would LOVE to hear about the wisdoms and successes and struggles of teachers that are trying to implement some of these ideas.  With your help, we can make this list of resources more robust and more useful so we can get more teachers on board rethinking how we create the students we want to create.

Calls to Action

Choose one thing you value and make it an explicit learning objective.

This statement framed my first Call to Action and I want to unpack it briefly.  Everything we do in a classroom as teachers should be intentional and aligned to a specific goal.  In other words, every lesson should have specific outcomes that we’re intentionally striving to guide our students toward.  (Basically, “winging it” or “shooting from the hip” are not good lesson plan protocols.)

Often times as math teachers, that goal is an objective that uses language related to the content standards.  For example:  Students will be able to compute the quotient of fractions.

I’ve seen teachers teach a lesson with this objective.  And it’s usually terribly boring for students who are often forced to sit there and learn how to reproduce an algorithm.  At best, students are led through an overly scaffolded learning experience using a textbook that sucks all the life and joy out of learning.  These lessons don’t create the students we want to create.  Instead, they often create students who hate math, think it’s boring, or come to think of themselves as non-math people.

I’m suggesting that we expand the learning objectives to also include the things that we value as educators.  For example, if we want to create curious students, shouldn’t an objective also be:  Students will be curious about a context and ask mathematical questions.  Now we’ve got a lesson that holds us and students accountable for creating an engaging learning experience.

If you’re looking for a quick example, check out this lesson from Graham Fletcher.  The objectives could be the two I underlined in the paragraphs above.  Students have an opportunity to fulfill both objectives so that they can learn more math and learn to love math more.  At the conclusion of the lesson, ask students to reflect on the things that made them curious and the questions they asked.  For homework, ask them to think of some other examples where this math standard manifests in the real-world and use those examples to start the next lesson.

So that’s my main call to action.  Choose something you value (such as: curiosity).  Make it an explicit learning objective for the next few weeks (such as:  students will be curious about a context and ask mathematical questions).  And make sure you measure that value through reflection and practice.  Even continuously weaving the objective into the language of the lesson would be helpful.  If we do this more, we’ll create students with healthier mindsets in the math classroom.

If I don’t put grades on tests, what do I do instead?

I end my talk asking teachers to seriously reconsider the practice of writing grades/scores on tests.  Let me be clear:  I know that almost all teachers have to put a grade in some sort of gradebook and on report cards.  I’m talking about asking teachers to simply make the choice not to write them on tests.

I want to invite teachers to share their successes and wisdoms doing this practice in their classrooms.  I had my own process when I was in the classroom (and it was by no means perfect), but I want to hold off on sharing that.  I would love to hear from teachers about how you structure the “handing back the test” moment so that it leads to more learning from all students.  So please, share away!

It would also be short-sighted of me to offer this suggestion without also offering some specific examples of what it looks like.  If you’re looking for some specific starting points, I suggest:

  • Leah Alcala has a great segment on the Teaching Channel.  You can watch this short video and figure out how it would work in your classroom.  I think there are ways to improve her methodology in the process.  The specific test she uses in this episode is also very traditional.  I’d love to see it applied for an assessment that is more open and authentic.  Anyone have an example to share?
  • The website Teachers Throwing Out Grades also has some specific resources and practices that you can use.
  • Starr Sackstein, a teacher in New York, has written a lot about this topic.  Her Twitter feed is well worth following as is her blog.
  • What else should go on this list?  Please add your thoughts in the comment section.

Resources and Research

Drew Perkins, John Merrow, and the TeachThought Podcast

I reference this TeachThought podcast.  Host Drew Perkins interviews John Merrow, a broadcast journalist who has reported on education since the 70s.  It’s well worth the listen.  Merrow makes some profound insights that can only come from decades of experience, and I really appreciate his perspective on things.  There are many juicy parts of the podcast, but if you don’t have time to listen to it all, the 10:30 mark is a good place to start.  The quote about measuring what we value instead of valuing what we measure can be found around the 17:10 mark.  (Note:  The audio quality is a little poor at times.)

I reference some data about about the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in my talk.  He references the data later in that same Merrow podcast.  His blog about shifting thinking around our teaching practices may be really useful to you and you can find it here.  You’ll find a republished version of my own blog post and many other amazing and inspiring posts.

Healthy Student Mindsets and the Harm that Grades Can Do

This news story from KQED is a good starting point to explore how the practice of grading can hinder student learning.  Give it a read here.

Jo Boaler’s new book Mathematical Mindsets is an essential resource and an excellent entry point for any teacher or school leader thinking about student mindsets and the things educators (of all types) can do to improve mathematical thinking for their students.  Much of my talking points are based on the research in that book.

Pages 167-168 in Mathematical Mindsets offer some essential grading practices that we should all make as teachers.  You’ll have to buy/borrow a book for full detail, but here’s a quick snapshot of the list:

  • Always allow student to resubmit any work or test for a higher grade.
  • Share grades with school administrators but not with students.
  • Use multidimensional grading.
  • Do not use a 100-point scale.
  • Do not include early assignments from math class in the end-of-class grade.
  • Do not include homework, if given, as any part of grading.

The chapter on “Assessment for Growth Mindset” is probably the most pertinent to my talk, but I recommend the whole book for any math teacher.

Boaler’s website is a valuable resource for research and for instructional ideas/materials you can use in your classroom.

If you want to find more specific research about the role assessment can play on growth mindsets, you can search for “assessment” in her search field or simply click here.

John Hattie and What Leads to Learning in the Classroom

John Hattie has been doing research on what works and what doesn’t work to improve student performance.  A lot of his ideas are discussed and explored on the Visible Learning website and you can find out more about Hattie here.

You can find out more about what practices are most impactful (positively and negatively) on student learning here.

You can find out more details about what student reported grades are all about and why there are useful here.

Missed My Talk?

Here you go: ignitemovie3


I’m really grateful for the opportunity to speak.  I hope you found the talk inspiring and this work essential to creating the students that we need to create in the classroom.  Teaching is a demanding task.  And there are many forces that create a disconnect between our purpose and our practice.

Together I’m hoping we can share some practices around these talking points and begin to realign our purpose and practice.

Comments and resources are encouraged.  Let’s continue the dialogue together.

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