# Promote Struggle – A Hero’s Journey in Math Class

How many times have I seen a student give up before they even start an unfamiliar problem in my class? A lot! It happens way too much. How can we build resilience and determination in our students? One thing we can do is to let them experience unfamiliar problems regularly and help them struggle through the process of working on a solution.

Let me share with you how the Hero’s Journey story arc can help with learning productive struggle in math class.

While in Miami for the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute we saw a speaker from Pixar Randy Nelson discuss the aspects of Story. More specifically he spoke about the Hero’s Journey. That talk really hit home for me. Below is how I interpreted his message and how it relates to my classroom.

## A Hero’s Journey

All of these characters take a hero’s journey….

Since I’m a math teacher describing the Hero’s Journey is best done with……a graph (English teachers will know it’s shown as a cycle).

On a time vs. Tension graph the Hero’s Journey looks like this: Time is the length of the journey….or story. The tension is felt by the audience.

In the beginning the hero is introduced, the main conflict is introduced, his/her world starts to change. As the story continues the hero must battle the forces of evil & go through struggle. They must experience conflict. It’s the conflict that the hero learns about themselves. They learn their strengths and weaknesses. It’s the struggle that makes the ending awesome. Its the struggle that make the hero see the solution. It’s the lessons they’ve learned in the struggle that let’s them go aha! I know what I need to do! The story would mean nothing to the hero and the audience if the climax was much earlier in the timeline. As the story ends the character returns to a NEW normal. They take their learning and come out stronger on the other side.

This curve we see above is nothing new to us. This curve is what learners go through. It’s a Learner’s Journey too.

Now, if we take a look at our traditional math classrooms we have a format much like this:

Photo credit: Kyle Pearce

Let’s look at that structure on the Time Tension graph.

After we take up homework, we introduce the new lesson or topic or problem to work on. It’s unfamiliar so tension in our students starts to increase.  But what happens is that as the tension rises it immediately falls back down. And my good buddy Kyle Pearce mentioned to me that the tension doesn’t fall all the way back to the axis….a good number of our students feel that tension permanently.

Why does the tension fall immediately?

We make that happen. We relieve students of their pain by immediately telling them HOW to solve the problem.

It’s Our examples & solutions. Students don’t get a chance to struggle & discover, Therefore the math formula, strategy or algorithm means nothing to them! The memorizers will memorize and do ok, and the non-memorizers lose again. The ideas and strategies have no real value to them.

I think students should feel the need for the math they learn. They should experience struggle ….just like the hero.

Let’s take the old model of our lessons and transform it to match the Hero’s Journey. It’s the struggle that adds value to their learning. Let’s move the reveal of math rules etc farther in the timeline. Let’s let the students productively struggle through math problems. The reveal of the “math” will mean so much more after students see and/or feel the need for it.

Download the 3-page printable guide that will give you 3 actionable tips to build resilient problem solvers in your math classroom.

An example in my class this week came when I wanted to teach students how to determine an equation of a quadratic function when given some key points.

I gave them this simple Desmos Activity Builder slide from Match My Parabola

Students already knew about vertex form of a quadratic function so I knew they could put in most of this equation. It’s the “a” value that they really didn’t know how to get efficiently. So I saw a lot of this…

Students used trial and error to find -1/4 as the right “a” value. But we then asked “How do we know that’s the right one?” We then discussed plugging in a point to check to see if the right side equals the left side. They had a few more slides just like this but with different points. By the end of the last slide you could see that they really wanted a more efficient way of determining the “a” value than guessing and checking. This is where I stepped in and we discussed the idea of using one of the points and the equation to solve for the “a” value. Everyone was on board! They all had struggled before we discovered an efficient strategy. They all wanted it. If I had started class by showing them the first slide and then just telling them how to do it, I would see lack of understanding of why and bored faces.

It’s the struggle that makes the math worth it! Let’s let our students be Heroes. How are you promoting struggle in your classroom? I would love to hear of your ways. Leave a comment below.

Click here to grab the Desmos Activity Builder Activity I showed above.

## The Hero’s Journey & Pentomino Puzzles

To help you wrap your mind around the Hero’s Journey as a lesson model I’ve created a Hero’s Journey Lesson Template. The exercise is to choose a lesson you have coming up in your class. How can you modify that lesson so that the flow follows a hero’s journey? Use the template below to help plan your lesson out.

Exemplar: I used the template to model how I use the Pentomino Puzzles activity to teach solving linear equations.

You can see that we slowly build up the need for a helpful efficient strategy to solve the puzzles. When my students have struggled and persevered 3 or 4 times to solve a tough puzzle, the timing is now perfect for us to step in and help them develop that skill of solving equations.

Want to dive deeper into learning how to teach through the Hero’s Journey? Dive into our self-paced online math educator pd course.

# Pumpkin Time-Bomb Activity

For the last few years  I’ve shared out a Google Form for classes to record measurements around their pumpkins and make them explode! I shared that form on Twitter so that we could crowd source as many pumpkins as we could to make the sample size large enough. I was pretty shocked at how many schools from North America took on Pumpkin Time-bomb. By the time Halloween was over the spreadsheet had over 90 entries. That’s over 90 pumpkins exploded in the name of math and data collection.

[Update] – October 2018 – The form now has over 500 entries!!

This coming week let’s add to the data and use the it in our classroom to discuss: Scatterplots, Trends, Correlation strong, weak, no-correlation, lines of best fit, correlation coefficient, etc.

Here’s a sample lesson you could use on the day you make your pumpkin explode.

## SPARK Curiosity

Play this video which shows Jimmy placing rubber bands around a pumpkin.

NOTICE & WONDER

Using a notice & wonder strategy, have your students record anything they notice and anything they wonder from the video.

ESTIMATION:

Steer you class’ wonders toward the questions: How many rubber bands will make the pumpkin explode?
Have students write down a guess that is too low. Too high. Then estimate their best guess.

If you’re looking for your lesson goal to be around estimation then show the act 3 video next, but if you’re looking to go further and tackle a learning goal around Using scatterplots, lines of best fit, or linear regression jump down the post.

Show the Act 3 Video

## Using Scatterplots & Trends to Improve Your Prediction.

Alternatively, to Spark Curiosity you could use this pre-made Desmos Activity! which allow you and your class to follow a Curiosity Path.

WITHHOLDING INFORMATION to create ANTICIPATION:

Use the PAUSE tool on the activity to lock their screens while you show your students the video on your main screen. Encourage your kids to discuss what they notice and wonder from the video! In pairs, I have my students TALK first and then TYPE second when collaboratively working on a Desmos activity.

ESTIMATION:

Consider pausing the screen again while you use the snapshot tool to grab student responses! This will lead into predicting how many bands will make Jimmy’s pumpkin explode. Have your students TALK first and TYPE second on screen 2 to make a prediction. Again, share students predictions using the conversations tools Desmos provides.

FUEL SENSE MAKING – IMPROVE YOUR PREDICTION:

Bring your students down the curiosity path a little more. Ask them about how we can improve our predictions? What other information would you like to know about the pumpkin or the bands?

Have a discussion on variables & relationships. Write all the variables on the board they come up with. Narrow down the list to items that are measurable with the pumpkin we have in the class. What affects the explosion the most? Height, diameter, circumference, thickness of the wall?

Using the PACING tool in Desmos move your students few the next few screens to make a scatterplot prediction of the relationship between the diameter of a pumpkin and how many bands will make it explode.

Screen 5 shows a scatterplot of pumpkins that have already been blown up and the relationship between diameter and bands (or non relationship). Have your students move the orange point to a place that helps them predict the number of bands. What placement would be wrong?

The next few screens ask your students to do that all over again while looking at the relationship between the height of the pumpkin and the number of bands.

Finally, reveal the answer after students have improved upon their predictions.

Now Bring out your pumpkin for the class to see! Have them predict how many rubber bands it will take before it will explode. Repeat the estimation process. Have them save their guess till the end of class. Where will YOUR pumpkin fit on the scatterplots shown in the Desmos activity?

If you are not planning on using the Desmos activity then you can use the original activity post from October 2015.

## FUEL SENSE MAKING – Making A Model

Throw out the question: “What about the pumpkin do you think affects how many rubber bands are used to make it explode?” Let your students brainstorm a list of variables. Have a discussion on variables & relationships. Write all the variables on the board they come up with. Narrow down the list to items that are measurable with the pumpkin we have in the class. What affects the explosion the most? Height, diameter, circumference, thickness of the wall?

Have them choose a variable that they feel should have a relationship with the number of rubber bands. Fill out the prediction part of the handout.

As a class measure all variables needed. Write them on the board for all to see.

## FUEL SENSE MAKING – Analyzing Data

Give students the link to the spreadsheet of all the pumpkins to date (You should copy and paste the data to your own sheet so you can filter/sort the results and share that sheet out to your students.)

Discuss with your students the lack of consistency in the selection of rubber bands from all over the country. How can we minimize this variable skewing our results? Filter the data with your students(or before hand) showing one type of rubber band (Most common is a rubber band of length 8.65 cm). This will only show all the pumpkins that have been destroyed using that type of band.

Get your students to grab the data that relates to their relationship.

For example:
If Kristen chose the relationship Circumference vs. Rubber bands she should copy and paste the circumference column and the rubber bands column into a new sheet side by side. Then copy and paste all that data into the pre-made Desmos File.

She can adjust the scale in Desmos as needed. Have her move the movable point and drop it where she thinks your class’ pumpkin will lie. Or you can have her find the line of best fit to help predict how many rubber bands it will take. Either way we want her to predict with more accuracy.

So Kristen would predict that if her circumference was 90.5 cm then it will take 272 rubber bands to blow up the pumpkin!

Now if Kristen chose a variable that it was clear there is no relationship then you get to have a discussion about correlation vs. no correlation. Have her choose new variables to predict on.

Once everyone in the class has a new prediction start wrapping bands around that pumpkin (You may want to start this as early as possible).

Watch your pumpkin explode and give congratulations to the student who predicted closest to the actual number of rubber bands.

Don’t forget to enter all your data to the sheet by filling out this form (you can also use the form to show the videos to the class).

[Updated] – You can use this Desmos Activity Builder Activity to facilitate the lesson. It includes only data for Diameter and Circumference.

Access the Form

Access the Data

From Oct 30. 2015

A few pumpkins from 2014 & 2015

# Hurry Up/Kill Time Math Classes – How Desmos Can Help

Seth Godin brought up an interesting idea: If you think about it, everyone at the airport is in one of two modes. In a hurry, or killing time. You can imagine it right now! That impatient person in the TSA line just waiting to speed walk to the gate, or the group of people jockeying for position to board the plane first. On the other hand the only other people are just waiting around to speed up!

This is also happening in math classrooms. Both teachers and students.
Students want to hurray through lessons, get the homework done, move onto the next thing. Or they are just killing time. Teachers are hurrying up to start lessons, give examples, get the ideas out, give the homework. Some teachers are just waiting around until the day ends.

But this is not all students. Some are focused on learning to learn. And this is not all teachers. Many like you and me are actively making moments that matter in our students lives. Let’s help others slow down the “Hurry up to wait” classrooms.

One way I do this is to create and share those moments that matter through enhancing classroom discussions through a tech tool that creates discussions, not limits them like so many others do.

Watch,

Let’s Slow down the hurryers and energize the waiters. Let’s enhance our classrooms together. Check out a list of over 25 of my custom Desmos activities plus check out the hundreds of activities on  teacher.desmos.com  like the Pentomino Puzzles activity.

Here is a transcript of the audio in the video:

Hey, I’m Jon Orr, a math teacher from Chatham Ontario, Canada.

I’ve been on a mission lately to make moments in my math class memorable. Like you remember specific moments in your life because they were meaningful. Something that sticks with you. When I think back to my experiences as a math student I remember grade 4. I thought I was a master multiplier. My teacher even gave me stickers for doing extra work….and these stickers weren’t just normal stickers they were the ones that stand off the page like puffy stickers. You know, the ones that make the book not close all the way.

That sticks with me because of the feelings that go with the moments. I want to create those for my students; not with stickers, but memorable math moments. Like moments that students will remember years later. Like I have students years after my course still remember the toy car lesson we did or the pentomino puzzle solving lesson! I want this for every student in my class.

One tool that I think does this amazingly well is Desmos. And I’m not talking about just the online calculator. I’m talking about the earth shattering online activities that they create for us to teach with for free!

What I love is that each activity they build helps me make those moments. And they do that by allowing my students to show their thinking in interesting ways, they allow me quickly assess on the fly the abilities in my room…and they allow my students to have discussions! The tech creates discussions!

Here is one task that is great. Pentomino puzzles.

The activity is super easy to get into, just move this tile around until you cover a sum of 65. You can see students can easily share their thinking and strategies. I have kids use 1 device for 2 people so they can talk about their strategies. It keeps that collaboration I’m looking for. But then each new task builds towards solving the problems using an algebraic approach! I get kids to learn how to solve equations through this puzzling type of game!

As a teacher I get to see what student is on what screen, allowing me to help kids that need help and allow kids to move forward that are ready for it.

I can pause the screen on everyone’s devices so we can discuss strategies. The software is built to enhance classroom culture and discussions, not limit them like other tech does.

So one recommendation for you to try to make math moments matter for all your students is to explore the activities on teacher.desmos.com.

Thanks,

Find out more on desmos over on my website mrorr-isageek.com where I share all my custom made desmos activities and many other resources and ideas for your math classroom.

Take care.

# 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?