Doing Better Things AND Doing (Obsolete) Things Better

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Ted Dintersmith makes a clear and compelling call to our American education system in “ What School Could Be.” He bemoans “doing (obsolete) things better,” in favor of “doing better things.” I had the privilege of doing better things at Riverpoint Academy (RA) for six amazing years. More on that in a moment.

I love this book. I love Dintersmith’s clarity and focus, but I think he is missing some nuance in how we go about navigating this “entrenched system” at the classroom level. As fate would have it, I read Dintersmith’s story of his interactions with Sal Khan and the KA staff in Chapter 7 of his book on the same day I read his indictment of Khan Academy on Twitter. As a result, a few things came into focus for me. Here’s the quote from Chapter 7:

Start a lab school where kids take on open-ended meaningful challenges, drawing occasionally on KA for “just in time” learning. Complement KA’s library of lectures on low-level procedures with a repository of meaningful math-based challenges, something I called “Khan Exploratorium.” Establish a center — the Bell Labs of education — to spark global innovation.

To bring an Exploratorium to life, I described the best math challenge I’ve encountered, which was in a middle school social studies class. Huh? Students were challenged to come up with ways to predict the world’s population in the year 2100. Work alone or in small teams. Use any available resources. Compute it with paper and pencil, calculator, or spreadsheet, or write your own code (some did!). Present your work to classmates, addressing their questions. When others present, ask informed questions and offer constructive suggestions. Then, discuss the implications of each projected population (which ranged from 0 to 30 billion) for their future world. Unlike math that kids do in school, this problem requires creativity. There’s no right answer. Kids learn point concepts (curve fitting, extrapolation, eigenvalues) in a meaningful context. Often, “bad” math students thrive, while “gifted” math students flounder. In contract, our current math track has nothing to do with the creativity and conceptualization that make for a great mathematician. Students never learn to apply math to real-world challenges. Everything would be different if our K-12 schools taught math that matters, instead of symbolic arithmetic.

On my way to Sacramento, I reflected on why Sal’s outstanding team had prioritized on test prep (SAT, MCAT, GMAT) over real innovation. I thought back to our first conversation, “Sal, why produce hundreds of lectures teaching kids how to do integrals by hand? They watch your video on a device that performs these operations instantly, perfectly. Let computers do the mechanics and teach kids how to solve real problems using math — something school never gets to. Help our kids leverage technology, not compete against it.” To which a staff member offered, “We need to focus on where today’s market is.” — an odd priority for a nonprofit aspiring to improve education.

My teaching partner Rick Biggerstaff and I are dissatisfied with American public school math, and at RA we had the chance to mess with it. We were cautious though because our “market” wasn’t looking to buy what we were selling. We had to find time in the school day to support efficient student mastery of the math skills valued by their parents, school board and the colleges many would attend — in spite of our conviction that these were wholesale the wrong things to focus on.

So, we did what many innovative educators do: we did what we had to do, so we could do what we wanted to do, and at RA we navigated this challenge without losing our teaching souls. It required doing our job twice. We did the math our community expected, so that we could do real math in a way that was challenging, personalized, and contextualized.

This line is hard to walk, and requires more than twice the work we once did as traditional math teachers. I’ll admit that on some tired days, I found myself pining for the simplicity of being the content expert performing his knowledge for his students. This extra work paid off though: RA saw two years of SBAC scores on par (year one) with the two big box high schools in our district and outperforming the big box schools by nearly 10% (year two).

Now, on to the fun stuff.

What we did

The Common Core standards are split into “Content” and “Practice” standards, though most high school teachers are largely unaware of the Practice standards. They are named the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) and they are beautifully written. Yes, really. They detail in eight strands what it’s like to think as Mathematicians do. Used well, they empower students to become mathematicians. Yes, really.

Rick and I are in love with the SMP. We saw in them a way to do real math as we’ve been inspired by the Computer Based Maths organization to do. We engage students in writing code, playing with data, making & defending arguments on topics they care deeply about. Our hunch was that if we got out of the way of our students, they would naturally exhibit the SMP. They played with the structures and tools of mathematics that can be experienced by students as beautiful curiosities if we embrace technology as a creative tool, rather than a 21st century slide projector.

Our trick was to use the Wolfram Language. It was perfect for three reasons:

  1. It has a notebook based environment in which students can mix plain text, code input, and code output all together. It’s truly a sketchbook for mathematical thinking that has spawned a very popular open-source alternative: Jupyter Notebooks
  2. It has an I N S A N E amount of real data, baked right into the language. If you’ve done any data science, you know that you spend most of your time cleaning the data before you can do anything cool. Wolfram solved this problem, yes really.
  3. It is a functional programming language. This is arguably the most important reason because it allows students to see the structure of their code and the structure of mathematical statements as the same thing. It truly removes the arbitrary barrier we erected between Math & CS. Actually, we should blame technology for creating this problem — functional programming has been around for along time but was for a long time too computationally expensive (Read: SLOW) to be practically useful.

We told our story at the Wolfram Technology Conference in 2017 and we are proud of this work. Would you like to see & hear it? Wolfram Videos: Authentic Computational Thinking in a Project-Based Public High School We also wrote some follow up, you can read that here.

Originally published at on July 25, 2019.

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I learn and I teach.

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