Tag Archives: engagement

Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers

I have at least one more post on reform math, but I got distracted while looking for examples of Dan Meyer’s teaching (as an example of his math in action) then realizing that many of my regular readers wouldn’t know Dan Meyer, and so started to construct a brief bio. In doing so, I got distracted again in considering Meyer’s quick-yeast rise and what it says about the gatekeepers in the education racket and access to microphones.

This may seem like insider baseball, but I hope to illustrate that Dan Meyer is an unobjectionable guy with a good idea, whose unhesitating adoption by the elites represents a real problem with educational discourse in this country. I will probably overstate and paint a picture that suggests plan and intent by those causing the trouble, when in fact it’s fuzzy and reactive with only big picture general directions, but probably not to the extent that Diane Ravitch (or, indeed, Dan Meyer) commit that particular sin.

Dan Meyer, 31, is in the process of becoming a celebrity math teacher (hey, it’s a small group). Much of his rapid trajectory upward can be explained by his message, which involves a digital curriculum that will (he says) instantly engage and perplex kids and thus resolve all classroom management issues (more on this later), a message tailor-made to appeal to both techies, since it implicitly attacks all teachers, and progressive educators, since it is inherently constructivist.

Most of the rest of his said trajectory can be explained by his excellent luck in his early audience—not only were they progressives and techies, but they were influential progressives and techies–Chris Lehmann, O’Reilly Publishing folk like Kathy Sierra, Nat Torkington and Tim O’Reilly himself, Brian Fitzpatrik of Google, and Maggie Johnson of Google and Stanford.

A teeny-tiny bit–ok, maybe more–of that trajectory can be explained by the Great White Hope factor. As I’ve written many times, every corner of education is desperate for young teachers, particularly young male teachers, most especially young white male teachers. Smart young white male pushes technology-based teaching, implicitly or explicitly declaring that all those old teachers (mostly white female grandmas) are doing it wrong. Hard to resist. So attractive message, demographic felicity, and luck. Not bad.

I’m going to summarize what I see as the relevant points of Meyer’s career thus far, but go straight to the source: Meyer describes his teaching career in this excellent video, which I recommend watching to instantly “get” his appeal. Go watch. I’ll wait.

He taught his first year at a Title I school in Sacramento, CA and, as he says above, was both miserable and ineffective, which he blames on his failure to create a “classroom ethos”. The improvement in classroom ethos began during his second year at San Lorenzo Valley High. It apparently never occurred to him to wonder whether the “classroom ethos” improvement at his second school, was helped along by a student demographic that was 87% white. Meyer actually noted the novelty of a non-English speaking Hispanic student which is the only time he ever mentions a minority student on his blog, best I can see.

While he made numerous videos that ended with the tagline, “I like to teach”, he in fact wasn’t all that attached to teaching. At the beginning of his third year, he was already predicting he’d be in school for either an administrative credential or doctorate by the end of the next year (he was off by two), because “I’m just keenly aware how much of my strength as a teacher derives from my ability to relate to student culture, to talk like they talk and dress like they dress” and his awareness that he feels “obliged to entertain”. He often implied that he’d mastered the technical aspects My personal favorite::

I am at a place, for example, where classroom management no longer challenges me. Not that every day is all smiles and hard work, just that I have identified the mix of engaging instruction, mutual respect, and tough love that eluded me for years.

Four ENTIRE years, this eluded him! This meme runs throughout his blog and is, in fact, the seed of his image-based curriculum. Meyer states time and again that he worked hours on end to keep from boring his students, thinks student approval as essential to improved learning outcomes and thus presents his curriculum as a better way to entertain kids, to perplex them in a way they will value, and once entertained and perplexed, they will learn.

Then, at the end of five years, he declared he was quitting teaching because he’d been transformed from “miserable to happy, incompetent to competent” (astonishing, really, how few of the commenters openly laughed at his hubris). He originally planned to attend UC Santa Cruz’s PhD program but his aforementioned contacts got him a year as curriculum fellow at Google, and he taught part-time for one more year. While at Google, he made his first TV appearance on Good Morning America (probably via Google) to discuss his theory as to whether regular or express grocery lanes were faster.

At some point after that, he pulled a TEDx invitation—very nice work if you can get it—which got him onto CNN and good lord, how could Stanford let him get his doctorate at Santa Cruz, after all that publicity? So now he’s at Stanford in year 3 of his doctoral program.

A star was born.

Like most teachers, Meyer’s a good talker; unlike many teachers, he’s good with any audience. He’s a bright guy and his videos are genuinely entertaining (go to the end to catch his early work), and I say that as someone who disagrees with very close to all of his primary assertions. As a young white male teacher he could demand nearly anything, and he nonetheless stayed in algebra and geometry, rather than push for advanced classes that his principal, eager to keep him, would easily grant. I suspect that some of his willingness to stay in low status classes was caused by his short-timer’s attitude, while another part of it was caused by his 70-hour work week. Anyone working that hard and long on classes he’s been teaching for years is unlikely to embrace new subjects. But those stated priorities nonetheless reveal a guy who is well beyond committed and flat out obsessed with doing a good job.

He’s hard to pin down ideologically not because he’s an original thinker but because he was, and is, profoundly uninterested in education policy. So no coherent philosophy, but Me Like, Me No Like. He would disavow the charge that he is on the “reform” side of the math wars, although less vehemently than a few years ago—Jo Boaler, High Priestess of Reform Math, is his adviser, after all. But even now, a few years after starting a Stanford PhD program, he’s very foggy about the specifics of major debates in math education. So he’s been trying to consolidate his positions, but he’s not always sure what the right ones are. In his earlier iterations, for example, before he became well-known, he often adopted strong education (not math) reform positions—he had an “educrush” on Michelle Rhee. In the early years of the blog, he dripped contempt on most teachers, particularly older ones, including coworkers. Early on he harped often on the need for professionalism, and asserting we’d be better off without teachers that do it just for love. But once Stanford put him on the doctoral payroll, he’s become more typically math reform, which means he’s disavowing education reform positions and doing his best to walk all that talk back. Well, not all of it–here he is on a forum last year talking about the need to train teachers on Common Core:

I think if you’ve taught for thirty years under a particular style of teaching, it has to distort what your perception is of math and how it should be taught. It’s unavoidable, to be steeped in that for so long. So to realign yourself, I imagine, is a very difficult thing. So PD that involves problem solving, involves reasoning, argumentation, that’ll be essential going forward.

So the nastiness to older teachers, still there. I don’t blame anyone who wonders if promoters consider that a bug or a feature.

Meyer’s writings never describe his “classroom action” in detail relative to other math bloggers (e.g., Fawn Nguyen, Sam Shah, Michael Pershan, Kate Nowak and, okay, me). He rarely describes the success or failure of a particular lesson, or gives any kind of walkthrough. He never describes a lesson in full detail, down to the worksheets and responses. He often went to the data collection well, and just as often failed, as in his two-month long “Feltron” project in which half the class dropped out early during data collection and had to be given other tasks, or this similar project

Meyer and metrics aren’t a natural fit. A few years ago, he was, comically, shocked by news of California’s Hispanic achievement gap. Dude, didn’t you get the memo? He never blogs about it, never discusses it, then out of the blue: Damn! We’ve got an achievement gap! And then he rarely mentions it again, save for this recap of Uri Treisman’s speech. He almost never discusses his student’s test scores and when he does, they are usually not great, although he mentions once in passing that his algebra students beat the department (no data, though). He cheerfully talked about standards-based grading for a year or two and blew off the commenters who wondered if the students were retaining the skills they’d “mastered” twice in a week. When he did finally get around to looking for that data, the answer was no, and it’s quite clear that he’d never before wondered about this essential element of success. So while I suspect that Meyer was a popular teacher who convinced a lot of kids–mostly white boys–to work hard at math, there’s little evidence of that in his written history of his years teaching.

I can find little evidence of intellectual achievement in education once he left teaching, either. At Google, he and three other curriculum fellows worked for a year on computational thinking projects. When his project shipped he wrote, somewhat obscurely, “Near as I can tell, of the sixty-or-so modules listed, only one of them ….is mine. I always admired Google’s lack of sentiment in deciding when to invest itself and when to divest itself. Still it’s strange to see a year of work reduced to a single entry in a long list.” (emphasis mine)

At Stanford, his qualifying paper was not hailed as an instant masterpiece:

The criticism I remember most vividly: a) my weak review of the literature, b) the sense that I wasn’t really taking myself anywhere new with the study, and c) a claim about equity that had me reaching beyond my data.

In short, he didn’t set the curriculum world on fire at Google, and the critiques of his qualifying paper suggest an analytical lightweight—which is pretty typical for salesfolk. So thus far Meyer has established himself as a stupendous salesman, but not much of an intellectual—at least, not of the sort that Google and Stanford like to pretend they invest in. He was even wrong in the GMA segment. Unsurprisingly, he was unflustered.

Realize that I know all of this because of Dan Meyer’s blog, so he’s not hiding anything. Hell, he doesn’t need to.

But he was brought to Google and then to Stanford and then Apple gets involved, and now we’re talking three of the most elite institutions in the country are pushing him not because they have any evidence of his ability to close the achievement gap, or even whether his digital curriculum works, but simply because he’s Dale Carnegie, and boy oh boy, is that a depressing insight into their motivations, just as his success is indicative of the desires of the larger educational world. It’s not “go develop your ideas and expand and prove them” but “here’s a bunch of elite credentials that will make your sales job easier”. So they dub Dan an “expert” and give him a microphone—which makes it a whole lot easier for a largely ignorant general media to hear him.

No, I’m not jealous. My karmic destiny demands that I enter new communities with neither warning nor fanfare and utterly polarize them within a month, usually without any intention of causing trouble. Lather, rinse, repeat. I gave up fighting that fate fifteen years ago. I have attended two elite institutions in recent memory; one of them ignored me desperately, the other did its best to hork me up like a furball. I don’t want to go back. Academia isn’t for me. And if a corporation handed me money to sell my message, they’d be facing a boycott. My blog has fifty times the readership and influence that I ever imagined, and I love teaching. I am content.

Previous paragraph notwithstanding, this essay will be interpreted by some as an attack on Dan Meyer, who is largely unfamiliar with anything short of worshipful plaudits from eager acolytes (he occasionally heeds polite dissenters, but only occasionally) since he began his blog. But while he’s a dilettante as a teacher, I think his simplistic curriculum ideas have interesting potential in teaching certain demographics, and I wish him all success in developing a coherent educational philosophy. Oh crap, that was snarky. I wish him all success in his academic and business career.

Dan Meyer’s rapid rise isn’t the problem. Dan Meyer himself isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the Gatekeepers: with Stanford, who knows that Dan’s not the solution, with Google, Apple, and publishing companies like Shell Centre (well, they’re in England) and Pearson. That intersection between academia and business, the group that picks the educational platitudes and pushes them hard, while ignoring or banishing dissent. They’re the ones granting Meyer the credentials that cloak him in the illusion of expertise. And I believe that, at least in part, they grant those credentials with a clear eye to the attributes that are diametrically opposed to the attributes they pretend to focus on. It’s no coincidence that Dan Meyer is a young white male. It’s the point. It’s not a fluke that he primarily taught white kids, many of whom were obviously sent to him with strong skills by teachers who valued homework above ability. It’s the only way he could have come up with his curriculum. Yet his message is adopted and embraced by elites who castigate education, particularly teachers, for failing black and Hispanic kids. I don’t know if they do this consciously or if they genuinely believe that all teachers are just meanspirited morons who don’t know math and deliberately deprive certain kids of meaningful math experiences. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

I suspect Meyer and others will ignore this essay (Meyer snarked obscurely at my reform piece, assuming this tweet means what I think it does), but whether that’s because he doesn’t like dissent or, more probably, because he subscribes to the Voldemort View, I couldn’t tell you. But maybe this piece will make reporters and educational wonks a bit more wary about the backgrounds of the “experts” they quote, and the gatekeepers who create them.

What I Learned: Year 2

Year 2 was all algebra, all the time. Few things are as draining—or as revealing of the utter emptiness of our educational policy—as teaching algebra I in high school.

The epiphany moment: Realizing that kids could distribute and combine terms but lack the skills to work the steps in combination. I noted this in first year, and just the hint of its return in the fall led to the development of the Multi-Step Equation Drill Down and the mantra “Distribute-Combine-Isolate”.

Technically, this process is called a “reteach”, but another thing I learned that year is that done well, a reteach is much more than reviewing the same material. Once I realized, less than a month after covering equations, that most of the kids could solve 3(x+5)=18 but not 3x+2(x-7) + 6 = 6x – 2, I didn’t drop everything. I finished up with linear equations and considered the best way to move on this. The problem wasn’t the individual steps, but the confusion that resulted when using the processes in combination. So why reteach? Instead, I just explained to the kids where their confusion started, by using a problem set similar to the one above.

When done properly, the kids are totally on board. The minute I put the two problems up and demonstrated common mistakes, I had their attention because they were bothered by it, too. Which is a bit weird, because trust me, I can list a million things that kids don’t get about algebra. And yet, the kids know the difference between something they completely don’t understand and something they vaguely feel they should understand, but don’t. The confusion they felt during a complicated multistep equation fell firmly into the latter area.

I learned that even unmotivated students have this, dare I say, inchoate yearning to having confusing areas clarified. Spotting these areas and drilling down gives the students faith in their teacher. They can see the teacher is paying attention to mistakes, distinguishing between utter confusion and “man, I almost got this but sojmething’s wrong”.

And the performance pop from these clarifications is huge. The majority of mid-level ability kids never lost the DCI clarity. I attribute this to the time spent in the darkness, followed by the blazing light of knowledge. Or maybe I just pick my moments well.

Never fear, most of them still struggled with “is this slope negative or positive?” Alas, that confusion has nothing to do with procedural confusion.

Other things I learned:

  • Data Collection and Analysis: as a long-time analyst, I knew how to evaluate the data, but this was the first year I had the opportunity to gather and compare the data.
  • I always differentiate instruction, but in Year 2, I ran 4 different lesson plans at all times. This led me to realize that teachers can pick their discomfort. For me, watching kids be either lost or bored leads to far greater stress than the work involved in running four classes simultaneously.
  • Low ability students: In algebra I, you often get kids who literally do no work, or who scribble frantically but clearly have no clue. At the end of the first semester, I put them on a contract. I would pass them if they demonstrated competency in five high-leverage areas: linear equations, quadratics, multistep equations, and simple systems.

    I didn’t need to use it in Year 3, but I strongly recommend this approach. Motivation among my low ability kids increased dramatically. Even the kids who ultimately failed due to attendance issues saw a big bump in their ability to solve multi-step equations and factor quadratics.

Some earlier posts that expand on these issues: Teaching Algebra I and Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard

Teaching Humanities, Part I

I got lucky my first year out and was able to teach math and humanities.

Were I ever to get a full-time job teaching either English or history, I would feel guilty for abandoning math and taking the easy way out. That’s how much easier it is to teach either subject. Do not picture me as short-timer, stuck teaching math as some sort of dead-end, droning on praying for the day that I get to teach my true passion. No. I find teaching math, constantly struggling to find a way to make abstract concepts understandable to uninterested students with no inherent ability, to be one of the most fascinating tasks invented. I’m hooked. But teaching English or history is a hell of a lot easier, and my lord, is it fun.

I taught 9th grade humanities at an extremely progressive school. (You’re wondering why on earth they hired me. They were desperate and got rid of me as soon as they decently could.) I planned out the curriculum with two other teachers for most of the year. As a rule, I did tests, grammar, and history (I was the only certified history teacher of the three of us, had considerable experience with standardized tests and–also as a result of my test experience–a lot of background in teaching grammar). They did literature and most of the actual planning (weeks spent on each section and so on). It was all collaborative and lots of fun–I learned a lot about planning out a book, and they gave me great feedback on how to simplify a history lesson for freshmen, while I taught them how to keep the rigor in even if the vocabulary is simplified.

We did the history of India, history of the Philippines, a brief history of Russia from the freeing of the serfs to the Russian Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment, Age of Discovery, and revolutions industrial and agricultural. The kids read Nectar in a Sieve, a book on post-colonial India, a choice of three books on the Philippines (can’t remember their names), Animal Farm, and Twelfth Night. They also did some sort of project on natural disasters, which interested me not at all except I learned a good deal about geography, and some sort of personal narrative.

There was a great deal of indoctrination in the course material from years past, but I convinced the other teachers to dump a lot of it (without ever mentioning my opinion of the indoctrination) and the rest of it I just cut from my lesson.

The kids’ reading abilities ranged from 6th grade to college level, as did their writing. We were supposed to do “sustained silent reading/writing” each day for 20 minutes (it was a block class of 100 minutes) and it was supposed to be based on student choice, but I realized that most of them were just sitting around doing nothing. So I instituted my own hand-made SRA program of three levels. I just went to the bookstore, picked out some enrichment materials at various levels (and yes, bought them with my own money), and made copies for the kids. The kids read nifty little passages on all sorts of subjects, answered questions, did crossword puzzles with new vocabulary, and had little tests at the end of each unit that I checked on.

The kids gained tremendously in content knowledge at all levels. My favorite example: when we were talking about Russian history and Trotsky, I mentioned in passing that Stalin hunted down Trotsky even after he fled to Mexico, where he lived for a while with two famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

One of my weakest readers perked up. “Is that how you say her name?”

I laughed. “I think so, but I’m not sure. I’ll go look it up later. You know about Frida Kahlo?”

“She was in the reading packets. She was famous for painting herself, or something.”


“Yeah, that was it. She wasn’t happy with the Diego guy, right?”

“Oh, is that the one that had a car accident?” pipes up another weak reader.

Another boy pops in. “She crashed into something.”

A strong reader (who therefore had not read about Frida) was interested. “When was this?”

“Yeah, this was like….it was after 1900. I think it was a lot after 1900, but not like 1950 or anything.”

“I think her car crash was in the 1920s, but don’t quote me,” sez I. (It was.) “That was very useful information, and thanks for the interesting details. Back to Trotsky and the axe.”

Content knowledge, baby.

Anyway, the segment on Twelfth Night we were expected to do was designed by a student teacher, and it was all about identity and examining their own navel—exactly the kind of nonsense I don’t like to do. By now, I knew I wouldn’t be back next year and this was the last segment of the year, so I went off the reservation. I did two weeks on Twelfth Night and two weeks on Elizabethan theater, and every minute of it was joyous fun. For the kids sometimes, too.

This post is getting long, so I’ll put the lesson plans and a story about in subsequent posts.