How learning to ride a bike is like/not-like learning math, and why it should be!

What are the moments that truly matter?

For me they are moments where we learn or accomplish something we are exceptionally proud of. They are moments that make us stand back and say “Wow! I did it” They are moments that we say “wait, let me get a picture of this.” They are #Snapworthy moments.

For me they are, playing that first song on guitar, catching a fish for the first time, watching my daughters swim that full length of the pool, scoring a basket in basketball, scoring a goal, singing a song in front of an audience, or riding a bike for the first time.

Learning the skills needed to accomplish these feats takes a similar path. The process has a similar experience.

We learned these things through the process of productive struggle.

Take my daughter Lucie for example. She was the last to learn how to ride a bike (tough when you have a twin too). She finally learned in a similar way, most likely, to how you learned how to ride a bike; by getting on, trying to balance while coasting, then falling over! Then, trying again.

Every time she fell she learned something. She would adjust and try again. She was struggling productively.

The difference between just struggling and productive struggle is Feedback.

Going through the struggle, using feedback and then making small gains gives us a rewarding experience. It makes us want to keep going. We build perseverance. We want to do better. This is one of the key ingredients to make moments that matter.

You know, we learn to ride bikes this way but traditionally we don’t learn or teach math this way. Vice versa is also true. —> we don’t learn to ride a bike the same way we learn math.

For a moment Imagine that we did. Imagine we structured a course on riding bikes like we structure our traditional math classes.

Here’s what the syllabus of bike class might look like, especially if it was taught in our schools. (I’ve adapted an analogy here from Dr. William Rankin).

Day 1:

“Welcome to your first class on bicycle riding. It’s going to be a great semester! We’ll start off week 1 with learning all about the tires. Tires are super important they’re the life of the bike. Learning about tires is important because it will help us be ready when we ride a bike.

During week 2 and 3 we’ll go over how the pedals work. Pedals are vital, they help make the bike move. In those weeks we’ll learn how that happens so when we start riding bikes we’ll be ready.

In week 4 we’ll have a test on the tires and pedals and then we’ll move on to study the handle bars. We won’t revisit the tires and pedals again until the end of the year so make sure you study for this test!

Weeks 5-8 is for Brakes. Brakes are vital to controlling the bike. I know they are related to the handle bars but handle bars were last unit. We don’t want to mix the two.

Weeks 9-10 are for Gears! I know they’re part of the pedal, wheels, and handle bars, but we’ll just talk about gears those weeks. You’ll need to use them when you start riding your bike.

Well ……That’s all we have time for in this course….

If you take our next course we’ll learn all about balance, whoa, that’s a biggie when it comes to bike riding.

When do we actually ride bikes?

That’s when you graduate!

Silly right!!

What did you do when you learned how to ride a bike? You just jumped on and rode! Just like Lucie did.  You felt a purpose to what you were doing. You learned as you were riding. It was a memorable moment.

But that silly bike class is the way we traditional teach math class. We tell our students that a purpose of math learning is so they can solve problems in the real world! We hold it over their heads that real problem solving is only for when you’re in the real world — done all your schooling.

We’ve traditionally taught math concepts in siloed units as if one math strand isn’t connected at all to another.

We say now,


Teach through problem solving. Productive struggle teaches the resilience we are looking for in our students. Just get on the bike and ride it!

In many of my past “problem solving lessons  I wasn’t really teaching students how to become better problem solvers.

If we’re giving step by step guides to solving problems in our classes are we really teaching problem solving? How much genuine problem solving are we doing in our math classes?

Teach content through problem solving. It’s the productive struggle – feedback cycle that really teaches our students to build resilience and their problem solving skills. It’s the productive struggle – feedback cycle that will create moments that your students will feel pride in. Those are the moments that matter. Just get on the bike and ride it!


Carla, a participant from our Making Math Moments That Matter online workshop pointed me to a fascinating video –>  “The Backwards Brain Bicycle” from SmarterEveryDay. The video illustrates the notion that we may have the knowledge of how something works but we don’t always have the understanding of making it work.


How does the message of this video relate to math education? –> We may have the knowledge that we need to Just Ride Bikes so that our students can become better problem solvers while at the same time creating meaningful moments but we don’t understand exactly how to do that.

We ourselves need to Just Ride.

We have to unlearn what we understand about teaching math class so that we can build a new path towards Making Math Moments That Matter.

Resources to help “ride bikes”


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



Learn the concept of spriralling your math class and why you should do it. You’ll walk away from the video series with practical tips to implement spiralling in your classroom. 


New to Using 3 Act Math Tasks?

Download the 2-page printable 3 Act Math Tip Sheet to ensure that you have the best start to your journey using 3 Act math Tasks to spark curiosity and fuel sense making in your math classroom!

Making Math Moments That Matter – Live

What makes students remember the math they are learning? Is it because you’re using a real world problem that they can relate to? Is it because maybe you used a 3-Act task? Is it because they practiced the content over and over? Is it because you used spaced practice versus massed practice? My good friend Kyle Pearce and I believe it is much more than that.

While at Oame 2018 Kyle and I took a chance and hit record on Facebook Live during our 75 minute workshop title Going Deeper with Math Moments That Matter. If you missed it or want to learn more you can watch the whole thing right here!

Session Description:

What makes a memorable math moment? Is it a real world task? Is it relevant to your students? Is it media-rich or delivered in 3 acts? While many professional development sessions focus on a specific component of an effective math lesson, Jon Orr and Kyle Pearce will model what they believe to be the three key components of an effective mathematics lesson: sparking student curiosity, fuelling their sense making and igniting your next steps. Join them as they lead a task to break each component down and then build it all back up to create a memorable math moment.

[UPDATE] – Facebook has removed our video — maybe we were too awesome?? So I’ve included three short snippets from other live workshops here:

and another,

and another,

What were your moments that you remember from math class?

What do you want your students to remember 5 years from now? Leave comments below. Or jump over to my Facebook Group and you can comment there.

Grab the Making Math Moments Matter Curious Task Template and our file with support resources over at

Thanks for being here with us!

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? 

Instant Pot, Lego Kits, and Teaching Together

Trying to cook with my new Instant Pot it brought up some thinking I wanted to share:

Join me over on Facebook or on Twitter or in the comments below to connect. We can do this better together.

Course Outlines:

Transcript of the Video:

So I consider myself a pretty good cook. After years of cooking for my family I feel like I can look in the fridge and whip up a pretty good stir fry or any other dish from scratch. So then I got this instant pot for Christmas….. And I felt like all my cooking instincts went out the window. I pretty much know how a frying pan works and my experience helps me determine how much time to cook the vegetables for so they’re not too mushy in the stir fry or I know how long to cook chicken in the oven so it’s not too dry, but this instant pot was a mystery. I had never used pressure cooker before…..I felt lost…Right now every time I cook with it I have to follow those mom blog recipes on Pinterest. Or the step by step recipes that come with it. I have no experience with how the timing works. I could cook dinners….but have no real understanding of how I did it!

It reminds me of the time I taught Accounting a couple of years ago. Here I am a math teacher with a bunch of pedagogical strategies on how to teach math that I love using….. Like I was with cooking I felt I was a pretty confident math teacher.  I wanted to teach that accounting class like I taught my math classes (great thinking happening, great discussions, kids struggle through concepts and we chat strategies; all the great stuff I know make kids better learners….but I felt that I couldn’t do that in the accounting class. I just didn’t know the content. I didn’t know the curriculum! I needed help and the only thing I felt like I could do was follow the step by step instructions in the teacher resource guide of the textbook. And there I was teaching accounting with not really knowing accounting…all because I was blindly following the steps.

It was so clear to me right then that Knowing the curriculum matters so much if we want to get creative with our course content quickly. It took me 8 years as a traditional math teacher before I felt I was comfortable enough to start playing around with different pedagogical strategies and deviating from the way the textbook ordered its units. Think about Lego too! If you want to just build lego go for it and try things out, build a masterpiece. Master lego builders spent a lot of time learning how the pieces fit together, And they did that by creating! Lego provides step by step kits so we can all build masterpieces but do we really know how to build that Death Star? Or Lego Friends dream house? I felt like I was just good at following instructions.

When we start our math lessons off with “today we will learn about the Pythagorean theorem” and then write this thing on the board and go through examples we are just giving kids the Lego Step-by-step guide, or the instant pot recipe book. And I now have to wonder, “Are they like me with the instant pot?” It looks like they know what they are talking about but do they really understand? I have to dig deeper, I have to get more info.And I believe teaching through problem solving is one of the best ways to get that information from our students.

Letting students work through problems through their own strategies shows me so much thinking. It’s then that we can consolidate as a group to share each others strategies or I can present new ones if needed. It’s a journey! And it’ll take time for our students to become great thinkers.

Like our students we too are learning through problem solving. We’re problem solving right now how best to teach our students. We’re learning by doing. And sometimes it takes a guide to show a strategy or a different way of doing things for us to go “aha!! Then our minds change. It’ll take time for us to become better. As a beginning teacher I thought I needed a plan to follow so that I could become comfortable with the curriculum. I thought I needed a plan to follow when I started teaching accounting for the first time. What I really needed was more people to talk to so that I could become comfortable with the curriculum and classroom management, and schedules, and assessment, and learning styles, and more and more. My first plan was the textbook and my first people were my math department.

Now there are many plans we can start with, many plans we can learn from and adapt as we grow. But let’s not follow those plans blindly like I followed the accounting teacher resource guide or how absent mindlessly I follow the instant pot recipes. Let’s interact with the creators of those lesson guides, let’s figure out what works best in our classrooms for our students.

You can download my course plans if you want a starting place. But then let’s not let that interaction stop there. Let’s continue the conversation. Let’s adapt those plans together.  Join me over on Facebook or on Twitter or in the comments below to connect. We can do this better together.

By the way I joined a facebook group to learn how to cook with the instant pot…so that soon I’ll be able to create my own dinners with it.

Course Outlines: