How To Get The Most Out of the Conferences You Attend

Okay wow! You did it. You ponied up for that conference entrance fee, you reserved the hotel, made arrangements for travel! Substitute? Booked! You took a risk! You told yourself I’m a going to that conference! Good for you. Now, you wonder

Is it going to be worth it?

That’s a question I ask all of the time. And my answer now is always yes. And it’s yes as long as I, myself, MAKE it worth it! Great experiences at conferences aren’t just great because we go….they’re great because we made the most out of the experience. My answer to the “worth it question” used to be “I’m not sure it’ll depend on what resources I can get”That’s because my thinking years ago was that the conference and sessions were there to give me that next great activity or project, or worksheet to fill a gap in my unit. And don’t get me wrong conferences are good for that…..but there is so much more to get out of the conferences you attend.

Here are 4 ways to make the most out of the conferences you attend. So that you can always answer yes to the worth it question!

1. Build Your Community.

If you’re like me you’re an introvert. Yes, I shy away from social interaction. I’m that guy at a party standing off to the side with his one or two good friends and avoiding more social interaction. And let’s face it so many of us math teachers are introverts. It’s hard to be social. Going to a conference means we can gather new activities and lesson ideas for our classroom but another huge benefit is Networking. Imagine a group of math educators you could rely on. Imagine you could share your lesson ideas with this group;  get feedback from this group; they even teach like you! Maybe that’s your math department already? Maybe not. A conference is meant and partially designed for you to help create this group. It’s structured for you to easily meet new people who share similar interests. Here are a few tips to help create that group of teachers you need.

Bring a co-worker with you. You’re more likely to meet more people if you are not alone. You’ll have confidence to talk to other small groups. Grab those emails. Learn their twitter handles. You don’t need to do it alone.

Talk at your tables. I know you want to find a table where no one is sitting when you’re at a session but DON’T DO IT. Sit at one with other people. Interact with them. Sitting at the same table already puts you on their team. Now just get to know them. Work together while in that session and get their contact info before they leave if you feel they would make a great team member going further.    

Hit a Social event either before or during the conference. Many conferences will have a games night, trivia night, wine and cheese, or a dinner. Don’t skip on these. This is where so many great connections and friendships can be made. When I attended the annual NCTM conference in San Francisco in 2016 hanging out at Desmos’ games night and the Trivia night were huge aspects of making that conference great. I met so many great teachers that I feel are now apart of my Team!

2. Be Picky

Choose sessions where you recognize the presenter(s). If you recognize a presenters name its likely that you’ve used their activities or ideas from them in the past. By picking those presenters this time it’s highly likely that they will give you more good ideas to go with. When I started choosing sessions based on presenters my whole conference experience changed. It went from “maybe ill get one good idea to try in my classes” to getting a ton of new ideas and left me feeling refreshed and resilient! Even though I had maybe heard them speak before, by choosing them again I always felt rewarded. The conference was definitely “worth it”

I also highly recommend that if you find yourself in a session that you feel is clearly not right for you then leave. Sometimes we feel like it’ll hurt the presenters feelings or you feel that it’s our fault for choosing this session and we have to “stick it out” Don’t! Just get up and leave. And now….sneak into a different session!


3. Check Out The Goods

You probably have filled your schedule up with sessions but don’t forget to budget time to hit the publishers display area. Some conferences have huge value in this area. So many companies get booths just to show off their products to you. You never know what you’ll discover there. While I was at NCTM 2012 in Philly I stumbled across this small booth with this young guy named Eli. He showed me all about this new graphing software I could do on my new iPad or online for Free!! I was in love. Ever since that meeting I’ve been using Desmos in all my math classes. I’ve since gone on and joined a select few to become a Desmos Fellow. So definitely schedule time to check out the publishers area at your conference! It’s worth it.


4. One New Thing

Vow to implement 1 new thing you learn while at the conference. You may get lots of ideas and resources but how many will you actually implement? Thinking about all of those ideas at once can be overwhelming and may result in you not doing any of them. Choose one idea, one resource, one activity, or one routine to try out in your classes when you return. Let’s make it so that you WILL do it. Write down the “one thing” on paper or in your planner. But write it as if it’s past tense, like you’ve already done it. That way it’ll look like you are doing it. For example, if your “one thing” is to try random groupings as a routine then write “I randomize kids everyday when they come into the classroom” By writing it the past tense will help make you do it. Then plan to implement that change routinely. Make a schedule and stick to it. Don’t break the chain. For example, Jerry Seinfeld said that he writes everyday. Not just when he feels inspired or ready to write. He writes everyday. And he focuses on marking each day off on the calendar. A big X right through the day.  As he built up X’s he didn’t think of his goal of writing every day anymore, he just thought, “I can’t break the chain” Breaking the chain meant that he would have to start all over again. Breaking the streak is a more powerful motivator than just “I have to write”.  So set up your goal and then “Don’t Break The Chain”.

Whew! Once I started doing these tips and strategies my conference experience changed. They changed from “I hope it’s worth it” to “This experience is priceless”

Now, there’s a ton of tips listed for you to make your conference worth it above so I created a downloadable PDF for you. It’s a Conference Companion.

You can either print it out or use it digitally on your device. It has places for you to keep important information, like contacts you meet, new ideas, and hashtags. It even has a small scavenger hunt style reminder list along the edges.

Download the Conference Companion.

Go ahead and start making all the conferences you attend worth it!

Do you have tips we can add to this list? Please add a comment below.

How Small Nudges Could Have A Big Impact On Math Education

Do you ever notice that many decisions are secretly being made for us? You probably missed them like I did.

Consider this: Last Friday, and much like every Friday our math department headed out for a quick snack and recap of the week at one of our favourite restaurants. We enjoyed stories from a week’s worth of lessons and working with students while looking forward to new stories for the upcoming weekend. Like every Friday when it’s time to leave I get the bill. What do you notice?

The tip was suggested for me!

I didn’t have to think too hard about what to leave. The restaurant has made it real easy for me to include that good tip. How many more tips do you think this restaurant earns compared to other restaurants that don’t have this feature? A bunch more is the answer.  

Here’s another example of a subtle suggestion that has a big influence on our decisions. Have a look at this image taken at the University of Pennsylvania.  

We have to do a double take and think about what side to place our trash in. We are pushed to consider our trash placement instead of just tossing it in a bin. A subtle suggestion that influences our decision. Recycle or Landfill?

Both of these scenarios didn’t just happen by accident or without careful thought, both are using a branch of behavioural economics to influence decision making called Nudge Theory.

From wikipedia: “A Nudge is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals.”

If we go back to the tipping example: the suggested tip amount on the bill is a small indirect suggestion for me to give a good tip. The restaurant has made it real easy to leave that tip (they did the math for me). Also notice that they didn’t provide tip amounts less than 15%. They nudged me to make a tip of 15% or greater! They nudged me to choose the behaviour that was favourable to them.

In the garbage bin example the creators drew your attention to the negative impacts of putting items in the garbage side. If you toss on the garbage side that trash goes directly to the landfill. They nudged you, very subtly, to think before you toss trash.

The basic idea behind a successful nudge is to make it very easy to do the favourable behaviour and hard to do the unfavourable one. It was easy for me to make a tip of 20% and harder if I wanted to tip less. It was easy for us to make a decision to recycle because choosing the alternative was something we generally want to avoid: filling landfills.

Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler along with Cass Sunstein brought Nudges into the forefront in 2008 with their book: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness and I learned about it from the Choiceology Podcast episode: The Big Impact of Small Changes by Dan Heath. In that episode Heath outlines a great example of a nudge: the power of the opt-in versus the opt-out.

In Austria, more than 90% of their citizens are organ donors. In the neighbouring country Germany? Less than 15%. Are Austrians that much more conscience about organ donation? Nope. In Austria citizens are auto-enrolled in the program and have to opt-out if they would rather not be a donor. In Germany you are not auto-enrolled and have to opt-in to be a donor. That’s a nudge! A small subtle change can have big outcomes in decisions. Auto-enrolling capitalizes on our laziness factor. It’s easier if we do nothing compared to doing something.

“It’s a question of putting the best outcome along the path of least resistance and letting your automatic system do its thing.” Mark W Riepe writes regarding nudges.

What implications does Nudge Theory have in the math classroom?

 Nudging in Math Education

In my opinion one of the most poorly designed calculator features on my smartphone is the percent button.

Students often misuse the % button the calculator and are not sure what is going one behind that it. It’s like a black box of percent calculation. Many misconceptions arise in my grade 9 applied class when students use this button without knowing the math behind it.

Compare that to what Desmos is doing.

Desmos has auto-added the word “of” after the percent symbol. There is no way for a student to delete the word of. It’s stuck there. It forces us to think about how we use that button. Both teachers and students are now auto-enrolled in finding the percent of a number before doing anything else. It’s an amazingly small change that has a huge impact on learning. They have made it easy to do the right thing. And impossible to do the wrong thing. That is a nudge!

Have you seen these charging stations for phones in classrooms?

Teachers are making it super easy for students to choose to put their phone away if it’s a distraction to their learning. A student will gladly get the juice and put that phone away for an hour. Nudge!

I want students to regularly self assess their learning in my classroom. I want them to be more accountable to get what they need. I make it very easy for them to see their own progress on the learning goals in our course. By auto-enrolling them in their Freshgrade portfolios student can access all the learning goals anytime and work towards showing improvement on them! It’s my way of giving them a nudge to make good decisions regarding their assessment.

What kind of nudges are you trying?

What are you doing to make the right behaviours easy and the wrong ones hard? What are you doing to affect choices your students make in your classroom? 

What Mr. Rogers and Breakdancing Can Teach Us About Risk-Taking Teachers

You remember Mr. Rogers right? Watch him here trying breakdancing with Jermaine.

Mr. Rogers gets it. Look how he ‘s willing to look potentially silly to show his audience something new. Something different. A different experience and to share a story. He knew the value of not worrying about what others might think of him while being curious and exploring amazing experiences. He definitely stepped out of his comfort zone!!  — “Like there’s a wave going the whole way through your body” — That’s gold!

As math teachers we get comfortable and complacent with our audience and that sometimes makes us reluctant to try something new. Maybe we’re afraid that the class will be unruly, the day would be wasted, not as much learning will happen, We’ll lose our authority?

But like Mr. Rogers, we too should try something new if it means that our audience may experience something amazing or a different way of seeing the same old thing or getting another “a-ha” moment. We want to inspire learning so students can continue to inspire themselves into the future. That may take us to step out of our comfort zone and we will need to try a little break dancing.

Try a little breakdancing this week.

What new things have you tried these last few weeks? Let me know below in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about it.

Building Resilient & Determined Math Students

Are you frustrated with how easily some of your students just give up while doing a math problem? You know that if they just stick with it that they will learn but they just want to be hand-held through math class every day. In the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the hidden power of character  Paul Tough argues that students succeed not because of intelligence but because of how much stick-to-it-ness, grit, and Determination they have.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. – Albert Einstein.

Tough says that you can build perseverance in children by playing chess. From the book, “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Playing chess over and over builds up a chess player’s level of determination. They have to take risks and learn from those risks in order to succeed. If we want our math students to build up resilience and determination then we also have to push them take risks and learn from the outcome of those risks.

In math class we can build up resilience, grit and stick-to-it-ness if we put students in experiences where they have to persevere through a tough situation. But think of their whole math class experience up to this point. It’s likely that a student would  never have had the opportunity to try to solve a problem before we math teachers show them the examples and how to solve it the math teacher way. Our students need experience persevering through tough situations like the chess player.

Imagine the first time you play chess and your opponent takes your bishop early in the game. You might think the game is pretty much over. Why go on? Or think of the young basketball player who has the right footing for a layup. They definitely weren’t a pro at that the first few times. But over time in each situation players overcome that resistance and persevere. They learn to be successful.

But in math class we assume math students should be good problem solvers and have grit in our math classes immediately. We say “our students give up too quickly” but when did we ever give them time to build those perseverance skills up? When did we teach them how to persevere? We are the ones that have to give them experiences to build that skill up.

3 Tips to Prevent the “Give Up Moments” and Create resilient Problem Solvers

1. Routinely have students solve unfamiliar problems through a supportive productive struggle process.

Use the Hero’s Journey to structure your math class and create productive struggle moments daily for your students. As an example, if I didn’t push my students to solve these problems routinely on their own to start our lesson then they would not only miss gaining the experience to persevere 

but I the teacher would also miss gaining valuable information about what my students know or don’t know. Problem solving must be a regular part of learning not just a once a unit or end of unit thing.

2. Create an environment where risk taking is low stakes.

In order for students to take risks and learn how to persevere the stakes for failure have to be low. It has to be painless to make mistakes. How are we doing this in our math classes? One easy-to-implement technique to make risk-taking low stakes is to bring dry-erase boards into your classroom. The no-permanence of the boards makes risk taking easy and it’s one of my favourite things. Students can attempt strategies quickly and wipe away quickly if needed. You can read more about the research behind non-permanent surfaces from Peter Liljedahl.

3. Show students that you value perseverance:

Create an assessment routine that promotes growth instead grades. Students quickly learn what you value. If we’re saying to them daily that we value the process of their learning over the final answer then how to we prove it to them? Your actions speak loudly. Give your students room to show that they have persevered while solving problems. Learn how you can implement an assessment routine that promotes growth and resilience by watching Conall’s Assessment story:

Read more about promoting growth in your assessment here.

Disclaimer: This transformation won’t happen over night. You yourself have to be resilient and determined. It’s possible that you might not see that change even this semester. But by allowing students to productively struggle through problems, giving them a low stakes risk taking environment and proving to them you value persistence WILL build their resilience and determination in the long term. We also must have a stick-to-it-ness to build great thinkers!