GitHub and Open Educational Resources

I’m going to wade into a fascinating discussion between Chris Lusto and Dan Meyer. I’ll be very bold and try to summarize their arguments.

Chris argues for a GitHub for math curriculum. He envisions a community repository that allows users to borrow, fork, and iterate on each others’ lessons. A particular focus of Chris’s argument is that collaboration is built into the repository from the start; instead of a design that emphasizes personal ownership, everything is designed to be modified, tinkered with, and improved over time.

Dan is skeptical. He points to BetterLesson, which has been trying to do something like this (albeit with a focus on master teachers rather than the broader teaching community) for a long time, largely unsuccessfully. Dan asks a bunch of teachers why they don’t use lesson download sites. My favorite response is from Nancy Mangum: “Using someone else’s lesson plan is like wearing a friend’s underwear. It may do the job but ultimately doesn’t fit quite right”. Click through for lots more examples of that sentiment.

I’ve been in Chris’s camp in the past. This fall I was arguing for what I called modular curriculum sharing. I went on to put a Virtual Filing Cabinet on this site, with what is currently an incomplete repository of my curriculum. Looking back, I’m not particularly proud of either of them. I’ve borrowed lots of curriculum from lots of places, taught lots of borrowed, unsuccessful lessons, and I think I’m coming to some conclusions about what it means to share curriculum effectively.

Case One
Sam Shah is awesome. I love his blog, and he generously posts a ton of curriculum, including source files and detailed descriptions. He also has a very particular style — having students work through a series of problems leading up to a broad conclusion, with a deep conceptual focus that usually broadens my mathematical horizons.

I’ve taught a bunch of his lessons. Unfortunately, most don’t go nearly as well for me as they do for him. I could argue away that his students are different, teaching styles, blah blah blah. But reflecting on these lessons, I think what it actually comes down to are very different sets of skills. Sam is awesome at questioning students and getting them to look at concepts in new ways through careful progressions of problems. That goes way beyond the pieces of paper that we put in front of students, and probably beyond the ability of a blog post to explicate a lesson. Not to say it’s impossible for me to teach his lessons; just that Sam has developed a set of skills that I don’t have, and that I haven’t put the necessary effort into building, in order to be effective with that type of instruction.

Case Two
Mathalicious is awesome. With my move to high school I don’t teach as many of their lessons, but I love teaching them and I see them make a difference in students’ understanding and attitudes toward math.

My first few Mathalicious lessons went pretty poorly. The engagement that I bought from the hook or video to start the lesson quickly moved toward chaos, I struggled to release students to work and bring them back together for discussion effectively, and I often ended up doing too much of the work for students. But I got better. It helped that I saw Karim present at NCTM, and watched him facilitate a lesson. It also helped that I stuck with it, kept teaching them until I got better, and I blogged about the lessons and read other folks’ blogs to continue my improvement. In short, I developed a set of skills, specific to Mathalicious lessons — a sort of conversational teaching style and reliable tools to channel students’ energy productively — that made these lessons successful for me.

Case Three
Which One Doesn’t Belong is awesome. When the site first got going, I thought it was basically the coolest thing ever. Then I put it to work in my classroom. It didn’t go nearly as well as I hoped. Students found ways to do less work and opt out of more challenging thinking and discussions were often short-circuited. It took a while to make the cultural changes I needed for the warm-up to reliably promote mathematical thinking from all students. And that happened because I developed a set of skills around framing and facilitating these problems in ways that moved student thinking forward, held all students accountable, and provided avenues for students to extend their thinking when necessary.

Where I’m Going With This
When I first started reading blogs and getting involved with the MTBoS, I saw it primarily as a giant collection of awesome resources to make me a better teacher. That perspective has changed; there are a ton of resources, but plugging in different resources from all over the internet often doesn’t lead to the results I hoped for. Max Ray-Riek argued articulately in his Ignite talk at NCTM this year against getting lessons exclusively from blogs because of the lack of coherence. I’m with him there. Coherence is hard, and as Max points out, coherence is expensive.
Screenshot 2016-06-08 at 3.10.40 PM.png
I’m no longer looking for resources to create the bulk of my curriculum, but that doesn’t mean all resources I find are unaligned and useless. It just means being more selective about what’s right for my classroom.

When I first started teaching other people’s lessons, I think I was implicitly looking for their clever ideas to compensate for my lack of teaching skill. But a whole bunch of clever ideas do not a add up to a meaningful curriculum. And a whole bunch of clever ideas mean that, when I walk into the classroom each day, I’m not able to focus on improving the craft of my teaching. Instead, I’m juggling all the unexpected problems that are inevitable teaching someone else’s lesson, just trying to keep my head above water until it’s over and I’m borrowing something from someone else tomorrow.

My Answer
My answer has been to think instead about instructional tools I can add to my repertoire, and the skills I need to facilitate them effectively. A tool is something like vertical non-permanent surfaces, or three-act tasks, or Desmos Activity Builder, or visual patterns. None of these worked perfectly for me the first time I used them. Instead, they’re all tools I’ve used over time, and developed the necessary skills to teach them effectively. Thoughtful folks around the math internet have been a huge help with that.

I think a lesson download site that is broadly popular and useful for teachers needs some way of supplying a narrative — a common language around what that type of lesson looks like, what skills teachers need to teach it, and what the expected outcomes are. That’s why I find three-acts and Desmos and Mathalicious so helpful. I have a clear idea of how I want the lesson to go and the teacher moves I’m going to use to get there.

I’m not sure what this broader language looks like, or if that lesson download site is even viable. But I see a major shift in moving away from teaching as collecting resources and toward teaching as developing a range of skills with different instructional tools. I think that David Wees and his work with instructional routines is a useful prototype here. I would much rather teach 90% of my lessons the way I’ve been teaching them, and get really good at adding something new for that last 10%. Then, once I’ve gained some competence, move on to the next 10%. And the next. I think that’s a blueprint for meaningful change, supported by open curriculum, and accessible to a wide range of teachers.

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