What’s wrong with Dan Meyer’s TED talk?Posted: September 12, 2015
I originally posted the following on my old blog back in 2013. I thought it was worth reposting given recent discussions.
For those of you who don’t know, Dan Meyer is a bit of a phenomenon. On the basis of having taught maths for six years in California, he now travels the world, holding professional development sessions on his approach to teaching. He has even given a TED Talk.
I was recently made aware of Onalytica’s list of the most influential education blogs. I’m not clear how Onalytica rates influence and it seems to throw-up some rather odd results. However, Dan Meyer’s blog is rated number 1 by this approach and it has been for some time.
I think it interesting that this should be the case because;
1. I disagree with Dan Meyer’s analysis of the teaching of mathematics
2. Dan Meyer presents little evidence to support his case
Dan Meyer has an aphorism that sits beneath the title of his website; “less helpful.” This really summarises his approach. For instance, in his TED talk, he discusses a textbook question about a water tank. The original question has a lot of structure. It is split into multiple parts that lead students through the question in a particular order. This is not accidental. The textbook will have been designed by writers who have an implicit or explicit understanding of cognitive load. Novice learners need this structure because the capacity of the working memory is limited and so it enables novices to focus on a few salient points at a time.
However, Meyer says, “The question is: How long will it take you to fill it up? First things first, we eliminate all the sub-steps. Students have to develop those, they have to formulate those. And then notice that all the information written on there is stuff you’ll need. None of it’s a distractor, so we lose that. Students need to decide, “All right, well, does the height matter? Does the side of it matter? Does the color of the valve matter? What matters here?” Such an under-represented question in math curriculum. So now we have a water tank. How long will it take you to fill it up? And that’s it.”
This is quite poor advice. It is conceivable that some students who posses more mathematical knowledge will be able to cope – this is known as the expert reversal effect. But, for novice learners, this is going to lead to confusion and frustration. I am sure than Meyer is a talented and inspirational teacher who has strategies for mitigating these issues but a less experienced teacher following this advice will find it a struggle. Little learning will take place. Given that conventional means are more consistent with both cognitive science and the findings of educational research, it is odd that a strategy would be suggested that throws up such problems.
My second point about the TED talk in particular – and Meyer’s approach more generally – is the odd nature of the discourse. Meyer does not seem to feel the need to justify any of his claims with reference to any relevant evidence. At one point in the TED talk, we hear a reference to something said by a TV producer but that’s about it. Are we to assume that this whole edifice is constructed solely upon what Dan Meyer reckons?
An interesting contrast would be with Dylan Wiliam. He is one of the most respected and influential educationalists in the world right now, having been deputy director of the Institute of Education in London. Yet, he never presents anything without discussing the research evidence behind it. He doesn’t expect us to accept an argument from authority, even from him.
I do not claim that all assertions are unacceptable. Some points in an argument are obvious and it would be tedious to reference every statement that is made. Some points are clearly a matter of opinion (e.g. my own assertion that thinking hats are silly) and should be taken as such. However, to build an entire methodology around assertions seems a little bit much. Most posts on Meyer’s blog are descriptions of the application of his methods with the central tenets seemingly assumed. Some plucky individuals have made reference to cognitive science in the forums but these are treated largely as an interesting curiosity.
I don’t actually hold Meyer responsible for any of this. Teachers have views which they are entitled to share. However, it is an indictment of our profession that assertions can elevate you to such dizzy heights, even when they appear at odds with the available evidence.