Dismissed as an ‘ideologue’

I’ve just read a kind of homage to Dan Meyer. It is typical of the genre and similar to Meyer’s own writing. The key features are the hubristic claims – that Meyer will ‘save’ maths – coupled with absolutely no evidence at all to support them. As ever, we are supposed to simply feel that the argument is right. We are meant to evaluate it on its truthiness.

Critics – and Meyer has acknowledged that I am one of them – are dismissed by Meyer as ‘ideologues’. So that’s OK then. Game over. Except that it’s not. Much as it serves a rhetorical purpose to paint me as a crotchety old has-been who just doesn’t like change, this won’t wash. Call me ‘Gradgrind’ or the child-catcher from chitty-chitty-bang-bang; call me any names you want but this won’t alter the fact that I have absolutely loads of evidence to support my position.

Meyer likes to paint my argument as an arcane point about when to explain: He just wants to change the order around a bit and do some problem solving before explicit instruction. What’s wrong with that? There is some evidence to support an approach such as this known as ‘productive failure’. However, it is not strong, with most studies being poorly controlled. This is probably the best study and yet if you read the method you’re likely to spot the problem: The kids who get direct instruction first then have to spend a whole hour solving a single problem that they already know how to solve. I wouldn’t call that optimal.

However, the broader point is that this is a bit disingenuous: Meyer simply does not value explanation in the way that I do. In his TED talk he discusses taking away the scaffolding of a textbook problem so that students have to work out more for themselves. This is clearly going to increase cognitive load and particularly disadvantage students with the least knowledge to draw upon. It will frustrate them.

And Meyer’s explanations must come after this struggle. Mathematical principles are only there to help solve mundane problems about basketballs or whatever. Ironically, this leads to an impoverished kind of maths where kids are given formulas they might need just-in-time, rather than those relationships being built in a systematic and concept-driven way. It is small wonder then that, despite feeling right and being truthy for about a hundred years, proponents of this kind of maths cannot point to any hard evidence to support its use.

In Meyer’s latest desmos venture, it seems that even this limited use of explanations is set-aside in what sounds very much like full-fat, 100%, unashamed discovery:

“In the parking lot lesson, students draw and redraw their dividers, getting immediate feedback as cars try to pull into their spaces; only gradually do they begin to work with numbers and variables. Other modules ask students to share their models with the class, which allows them to revise their thinking based on the ideas of their peers.”

Almost everyone agrees that this kind of thing doesn’t work. So why would we buy it? What’s the evidence? 

When pressed, Meyer and his advocates will suggest it is all about motivation. What’s the point in having the most effective way of teaching maths if it turns kids off the subject? Surely, the biggest issue we face is apathetic students who don’t want to engage?

I think this theory of motivation is wrong. Evidence is starting to build that it doesn’t work this way around. Rather than motivation causing students to engage in maths and achieve, it seems that achievement in maths causes students to feel motivated. This simply confirms that our main priority must be to teach maths well. This can best be done by breaking it down into digestible pieces that are fully explained to students. This will give them a sense of success.

So I have thought about this stuff a bit. It’s not just ideology. And, crucially, I can point to evidence to support my claims.

Meyer would do well to read this seminal blog post by Paul Graham on how to disagree. If he does, he will see that calling people names is the lowest level of argument.


13 thoughts on “Dismissed as an ‘ideologue’

  1. Chester Draws says:

    I got blocked by Dan for suggesting that some of the activities he propounds are the kind of “busy work” that makes students feel good about Maths, but that don’t actually teach them anything. He takes challenges that well that he blocks ankle-biters like me.

    It’s intriguing, to me at least, that a man who has left active teaching after only a couple of year and now works in academia is not an ideologue. But those that have put much longer into active teaching and disagree with him, based largely on what they have experienced over many years, are ideologically biased!

    Despite the adulation of the NewRepublic article Meyer isn’t even particularly innovative. He backs up his ideas with much better examples than the competition, for sure, but we were being taught most of his ideas long before he came onto the scene. He links them in a more consistent way, and has intellectualised them. When I first started following him I was doing so because he wasn’t particularly radical. And as much as I disagree with him about some things, he isn’t a blind supporter of “progressive” techniques by any stretch (such as opposing “flipping” the classroom).

  2. I agree with Chester that he does oppose some progressive ideas. But he also gets his back up when his methods are challenged. I will acknowledge that there are people who can pull of Project Based Learning, student-centered, inquiry-based approaches, and Dan’s type of teaching with good results. They are comfortable with it, and know how to put in the time and effort to make it work. I wish them well. Having said that, I would like that side of the aisle to stop mischaracterizing the traditional modes of math teaching, and purporting that they consist only of “rote memorization” and no understanding, as well as teachers “talking at” students for 50 minutes, as one teacher told me when I raised questions about student-centered approaches. I would like the Dan Meyers and others of the progressive side of the aisle to acknowledge that traditional math can be taught well and with effectiveness.

    Ten years ago, a technique known as “Think-Pair-Share” was all the rage in classrooms, with students getting in pairs, talking over a problem, and then sharing their “insights” with the rest of the class. Recently, I have heard progressives saying “We have to recognize that “think-pair-share” is now antiquated and move on to better techniques.” Does this mean that in ten years time, the Dan Meyer and other techniques will also be similarly branded as “passe” and time to move on? In any event, our children can’t wait that long for the next big thing, which may likely be worse than what it’s replacing.

  3. SteveH says:

    “Meyer dismisses his own critics as ideologues. If they see anything that deviates from clear, straightforward explanation, he says, “they have a fuse that is tripped, a certain surge goes through their brain,” he said. ”


    ““The question is not should we explain, but when should we explain.” Meyer believes we need to provide certain experiences to students before we lecture: showing why a tool is needed, for example, or provoking cognitive conflict, or providing an opportunity to create informal algorithms before the standard algorithms are taught.”

    Clearly, a discovery approach cannot be done for everything. It takes too much time. Therefore, they must rely on engagement to do the work, most of which will have to be learned and mastered without the benefit of in-class, make-the-teacher-feel-good, hands-on projects. Worse, this engagement approach is often done in K-6 where kids of parents who know better (or have the money) ensure mastery of the basics at home or with tutors. That’s because we parents know that “trust the spiral” or trust the engagement doesn’t work for everything. My son loved to learn math on his own, but that didn’t always translate to the engagement needed to carefully go through each homework set of problems. They force the help and tracking to happen at home and it allows these pedagogues to believe that whatever they do in school works.

    The Meyer (etal) pedagogy tries to claim some sort of higher ground of engagement and understanding, but they fail to prove their case. It just sounds good – too good to be true. It isn’t true. It isn’t what STEM track students need in either K-8 or high school. It’s not how the best students are prepared in high school. Is this for some other group of kids who need a different approach (anyone should be able to cover less material and make it more interesting) in high school? Perhaps there is a need for that, but if the top high school level (“distinguished”) of the PARCC implementation of CCSS only means that one will likely pass a college algebra course in high school, there is plenty of time for that. However, slow and hands-on exploration is not somehow better than what the top students get and what those students had to get at home in K-8. I made it to calculus way back when I was in school with absolutely no help from my parents. That is almost impossible now, no matter how much Meyer happy dust you sprinkle on top. And what about the last 20 years of MathLand, TERC, and Everyday Math and their hands-on, engagement approaches? Still they blame rote and now “zombie” math as if a new name somehow makes the argument new instead of invalid and old.

    This is turf thing – that education and pedagogy are somehow dominant over content and skills. This is not what the best students get in math in high school. Those teachers know better. You can’t make a name for yourself if you just try hard day-after-day and year-after-year ensuring INDIVIDUAL mastery of knowledge and skills. They want to trust-the-spiral and trust-the-engagement and point to the successful students without asking us parents what we had to do at home. Hello! Ask us parents. It’s not difficult. My son learned a little about trig in seventh grade using GeoGebra completely on his own. He also did math homework sets from traditional math textbooks. Which made him a better math student? Ask me. Somehow, his schools never bothered to do that. They just see him as a poster boy for Everyday Math.

    • You and Barry mention this interesting idea of creating “the other”. For example, Barry states “Recently, I have heard progressives saying “We have to recognize that “think-pair-share” is now antiquated and move on to better techniques.””And SteveH you mention that the terms ‘rote memorization’ and ‘zombie’ math are used to devalue the proper use of practice in the classroom.

      Notice that branding a current idea as “the other” allows individuals to readily agree with the new and sometimes dangerous ideas that are rolled forward (ie. Everyday Math). This is because psychologically no one wants to be “the other”.

      I agree that much of what we need to see in executive decision-making at the school board level is common sense; however, there is this underpinning psychological aspect that can’t be ignored. I can say as much as I want about practice, but as soon as Dan brands me as “the other” (which he most certainly has, see here https://bryanpenfound.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/just-a-headache/) then those in power in the schools are psychologically driven not to agree with me.

      • Yes, and that was my experience in the “ed camp” that I wrote about in an article. Not only are my ideas “the other” but I myself was “the other”, a disrupter, someone to be shunned and “del-phi’d”.

        I also find it interesting that something like “think-pair-share” which people were shamed into using ten or so years ago, lest they be cursed as “other” worshippers is now “the other”. Which raises the question of how the current accepted practices will be viewed in ten years.

        I had a boss once who when he talked about himself in previous lives (maybe ten or so years ago) would say “I was a jerk then”, implying that he now was a changed person. I wondered when he said that whether he would be viewing his present behavior as jerky in ten years time. In my view, he was still being a jerk, but paying lipservice to a perhaps slightly jerkier version of himself.

  4. Eric Anderson says:

    There is some evidence to support an approach such as this known as ‘productive failure’. However, it is not strong, with most studies being poorly controlled. This is probably the best study and yet if you read the method you’re likely to spot the problem: The kids who get direct instruction first then have to spend a whole hour solving a single problem that they already know how to solve. I wouldn’t call that optimal.

    I would also add to this section that related methods like Preparation for Future Learning do something similar by not controlling between conditions. A new study found that after equating learning materials between the DI and discovery conditions, the DI condition performed better on a test and in one case, showed higher curiosity, motivation, and self-efficacy.


  5. It seems pretty clear that Dan is preaching to a choir that has little interest in examining whether he is correct and that he is quite happy with that. His response to critics blog post had both an obvious straw-man and argument from incredulity rather than a worthwhile argument.

    The shame is, as Barry points out, a lot of Dan’s output is useful material.

    But Dan doesn’t show an interest in resolving the debate with those that disagree with him. It would be incredibly worthwhile to have Dan and Greg engage in a blog debate where each responded to what the other wrote. They could resolve where they differ and refine what each means and leave their twitter followers far better informed.

    If Dan believed confidence in his point of view would survive such a debate it would be in his interest to give it a go. Instead of simply linking to critics and arguing from incredulity and an imaginary scenario he could deal with the differences through an open dialog.

    I suggest Greg offers a blank blog posting as the dialog so far and offers to host a back and forth between Dan and Craigen, Penfound, and Garelick and himself. Those other three are the ones quoted in Dan’s response to critics.

    Now a debate can easily generate greater polarization as both sides have egos, cheerleaders and crowds that want their side to win. But of course no one here wants their side to win here. They want the students to win through some better resolution of the differences of opinion.

    There are simple rules to avoid polarizing a debate. Mostly this involves seeking to understand the other persons point of view before defending yours. If you are tempted to simply repeat your argument you should instead seek to understand what the other party didn’t like about it and respond to that. If you are accused of mischaracterizing the other parties words you should deal with that accusation by asking what the other person sees as the difference between your characterization and their meaning until you have no dispute over what you each think the other is saying. And of course, the debate should only address the words the other person says not the person saying them and what you imagine they think or feel.

    I predict Dan would never agree to debate the differences under such rules. Greg should simply make the offer and point this out on a regular basis.

  6. SteveH says:

    There are fundamental differences here and it’s impossible to get past the superficial discussion. “They” drive the discussion (as pedagogy) and we react. We’re not even close. We’re not on the same page. What I want to do is to define the problem and drive the discussion. I want to talk about how CCSS makes NO STEM in K-6 official while educators talk about some better sort of understanding as cover. I want to talk about how full inclusion just hides the tracking at home. I want to talk about the complete failure of differentiated instruction. I want to talk about why we parents receive “Work on math facts” notes from our schools. Tracking is OK if they don’t have to do it? I want to talk about why schools seem to think that the modern solution is to get parents to understand K-6 school math. I want to talk about why the best math students in high school use traditional textbooks while pedagogues like Meyer claim that whatever they do is somehow better. Do they create students who now “like” math but still fail the Accuplacer test when they get to a vocational school? Does he create STEM students in high school out of those who got ruined in K-6 in a classroom filled with a wide range of abilities? Do they blame students when engagement and “trust the spiral” doesn’t work? Which is it, “trust the spiral” is fundamentally flawed or the students are flawed?

    Too many educators see the general problems of education defined by what walks into their classrooms. They don’t consider the critical longitudinal nature of math, and they don’t value knowledge and mastery of skills. They think it’s rote and now zombie math. They only see what they want to see. It’s “cargo cult” thinking and I don’t ever have any expectations of having a nice discussion that will change their minds. I only want to let parents know that they are not stupid – that ensuring mastery of the basics on a grade-by-grade basis in K-6 is very important. Otherwise, it’s all over by 7th grade. “They” think so too when then send home notes to parents telling them to do what teachers should be doing in school.

    This is a huge and fundamental flaw in (mostly) K-6 education where they are so far from the realities of college and the real world. They create a larger academic gap and enough parents fix the problems that they can remain in their own educational fairyland. Meyer tends to push his ideas for already damaged middle and high school kids, and assumes that engagement is the key ingredient even though he slows coverage and that allows for more engagement no matter what pedagogy is used.

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