Task propensity refers to situations where students are so focused on the features of a specific task that they don’t generalize their thinking in a way that is useful to solve different problems in the future. In short, they lose the forest for the trees. I’m exploring how task propensity relates to Desmos activities and how this thinking could help me teach more thoughtfully with Desmos tools. I first learned about task propensity through this paper, and you can read the rest of my series on the topic here.
I’ve been having a ton of fun with this series on task propensity. It’s fun because I love Desmos activities. I find them a joy to teach, I find them useful for student learning, and they let me do things that aren’t possible through other means. I also love thinking critically about where these activities are the right tools and where something else would work better. I probably spend about 15% of class time on Desmos activities, and that feels about right to me.
In my last two posts, I was critical of how Desmos activities fall into the trap of task propensity, and how keeping activities humble and designing deliberate follow-up tasks can help to avoid this challenge. In this post, I want to talk about the pause button — something that the folks at Desmos have baked into their interface and designed for student learning.
When the folks at Desmos talk about the pause button, they talk about classroom conversations and collective effervescence:
Collective effervescence is a term that calls to mind the bubbles in fizzy liquid. It’s a term from Émile Durkheim used to describe a particular force that knits social groups together. Collective effervescence explains why you still attend church even though the sermons are online, why you still attend sporting events even though they’re broadcast in much higher quality with much more comfortable seats from your living room. Collective effervescence explains why we still go to movie theaters; laughing, crying, or screaming in a room full of people is more satisfying than laughing, crying, or screaming alone.
There’s a ton of collective effervescence in Desmos activities. Take an activity I did recently, where students practice graphing sine and cosine functions by writing equations for different curves. There’s not much to it; it’s just meant to allow some low-floor practice early in the unit as we begin to formalize an understanding of how these functions work. Students like it a lot. It’s easy to experiment and change different parts of the function, and the challenges feel just within their reach.
Early in the activity, I noticed that most groups were using guess and check strategies to figure out the phase shifts. Take this screen:
One solution is to use a negative amplitude and then shift the function down. However, many groups end up trying to use a phase shift instead. This is a great opportunity for students to make connections through a quick discussion. Even better, some students write their phase shift in terms of pi, while others guess and check their way using decimals. Lots to draw on here.
Of course, at that moment there’s a ton of collective effervescence in the room. Students are engaged in the activity and in working collaboratively. It’s hard to tear them away. That’s where the pause button comes in.
There’s something really unique about the energy in the room when an activity is paused. There are often groans, and students wish they could keep working. It takes a moment to let that work its way out of their systems. The collective effervescence remains, but the task propensity — the feeling that students are “in it”, focused on meeting the challenges and nothing else — is put on pause as well. That excitement for math is great, but as students try to match the functions they see, they aren’t thinking about connections between different representations, the equivalence of multiple functions, or other big ideas of trigonometric functions I want them to learn. They’re stuck on the task in front of them.
The pause button is my chance to change their focus, to start a conversation with all the energy and engagement in the room that takes a step back, thinks more broadly about the math in front of students, and thinks about how some of the thinking that they’re doing could be applied in new contexts in the future.
When the pause button was added to the activity dashboard, I rarely used it. I felt like I didn’t want to interrupt student thinking and tear them away from what they wanted to do — from their goal of completing an activity they found enjoyable and challenging. I’ve shifted since then to see opportunities to redirect student thinking as the heart of my role as a teacher in that moment. My goal for a Desmos activity isn’t for students to get really good at Desmos. It’s for students to get really good at math. That means I need students to step out of the task, and to think metacognitively about what they’re doing and how it connects with what they already know and what they’ll do in the future. The pause button is by far the best tool I have for doing that.