More Than Resources: The Internet and Deliberate Practice

This is the short version of my presentation at NCTM (Thursday 12:30). Slides are linked here. The substance of this talk is very similar to my talk at TMC last summer, though geared toward the audience at NCTM.

Quick plug — the MTBoS tab on this blog is meant to be a “starter kit”. If you’re unfamiliar with the community, that page could start you down the rabbit hole.

The goals of my talk are first, to sell folks on the #MTBoS, an online community that creates tons of free, awesome resources you can use in your classroom, and second, to think about using those resources purposefully to get better at teaching.

When I started teaching, I struggled. I started using lessons from blogs and resources on the internet in an effort to be a more engaging and effective teacher. Some of those lessons were pretty engaging, but my students weren’t learning very much. Strong students had the background to make sense of my clever new lessons, but weaker students floundered and my curriculum became disjointed and messy.

What I learned from all this is that clever ideas don’t add up to coherent curriculum. Great curriculum focuses student thinking on the essential mathematics, builds on previous understandings, and is responsive to what students know and don’t know. I put this veneer of student engagement on top of the curriculum and expected huge changes.

There’s lots of great stuff on the Internet. I don’t meant to bash all of the resources out there. I want to argue the opposite. But that stuff doesn’t instantly make me a better teacher. Instead, getting better at teaching takes practice. And more specifically, it takes deliberate practice — practice where I push my comfort zone, work toward specific goals, focus intently on practice, use feedback, and develop a mental model of what expertise should look like.

While throwing new resources into my class didn’t work very well for me, I do want to highlight all of the amazing stuff out there. Open Middle, Three-Act Tasks, Visual Patterns, Estimation 180, Emergent Math’s Problem-Based Curriculum Maps, Nix the Tricks, Which One Doesn’t Belong. And there are tons more, that’s just a sampling.

So here’s the tension. There are awesome resources on the internet, but those resources don’t instantly make me a better teacher. I want to explore that tension by looking at two different resources that I’ve used. What has made these impactful on my teaching is that, instead of one-off lessons, they are structures I can use on a regular basis. I’m not going to be great at using them right away, but I can put effort into these specific structures, learn how to use them well, and add a new tool to my teaching toolbox.

One resource is Connecting Representations, an instructional routine developed by Grace Kelemanik and Amy Lucenta. We’ll do the routine, both to learn about the routine, and to unpack the type of thinking I try to use to get better at using this routine, and use those lessons to become a better teacher.

[this is the part you’d really have to be there for]

At the same time as Connecting Representations can be a powerful routine, there is also an incredible community out there supporting it. When I tweeted out this task with the hashtag #connectingreps, I got a ton of responses helping me to refine my thinking and figure out how this fit into my broader curriculum. And the best part is, there are dozens more Connecting Representations tasks out there.

A second resource is Visual Patterns, collected by Fawn Nguyen. Similarly, let’s do a visual pattern together and think about how this tool can be used effectively, and how it can inform other areas of teaching.

The purpose of all of this is both to sell folks on the power of online resources to supplement curriculum and impact your classroom, and also to think critically about how to use those resources purposefully to improve teaching practice. I’m not trying to sell either Connecting Representations or Visual Patterns specifically — there’s a ton of awesome stuff out there, and I don’t know what’s right for you. I do want to wrap up by framing these ideas in the broader context of teaching and offer a challenge going forward.

Dylan Wiliam wrote that “like so much else in education, ‘what works’ is the wrong question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere”. One of the things about the #MTBoS that I find so powerful is that you can use these resources however you like, choose what you want to use, and adapt them to your specific classroom. There are no methods that work everywhere. Instead, I think of great teaching as having a broad toolbox, and having deep knowledge of how to use all of those tools effectively. People often talk about 21st century learning, how what students need to learn is changing. I think of this as 21st century teaching. Today there are more resources than ever before to improve teaching practice. I think we have an imperative to broaden our toolbox, and to use those tools purposefully to get better in the classroom and better serve our students.

Steve Leinwand has said that it’s unprofessional to ask teachers to change more than 10% a year. It’s unrealistic. I’m not asking for a huge shift, or hours spent online poring over internet resources. But he also says that it’s unprofessional for teachers to change less than 10% a year. My 10% is focused on developing new tools through easy to use resources, and figuring out how to use those tools effectively. My challenge to you is to figure out what your 10% will be.

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