Helping Teachers Do the Very Hard Thing

The very hard thing is inviting, celebrating, and developing student thinking however and wherever you find it.

I participated in a panel at the Future of Teacher Learning conference at MIT earlier this year.

Justin Reich and Rachel Slama offered me the opportunity to hang with some absolute heroes and also the opportunity to distill all my current ideas and questions about teacher learning into four pictures and five minutes.

Let me know if any of this connects to your own thinking about supporting teachers, or about being supported as a teacher. Let the record show that I often experience my largest leaps in understanding when strangers send me emails.

Here are my prepared remarks.

Curriculum is Teacher Learning

At Desmos, we’re convinced by a variety of research, personal experience, and trusted testimony that the most productive change a math teacher can make is to develop an asset orientation toward their students’ thinking.

From “What are this student’s misconceptions about an idea?” to “What are this student’s conceptions about the idea?”

From “Is this answer correct?” to “How is this answer useful?”

From “This student is broken—how can I fix them?” to “This student is brilliant—how can I invite, celebrate, and develop that brilliance?” borrowing from Dr. Danny Martin.

A lot of my colleagues and I spent years working with teachers on these changes, but we ran aground constantly on curriculum.

A curriculum will never expressly prohibit student brilliance, but lots of curricula only make room for expressions of grownup brilliance—the brilliance of the teacher or the textbook author, for example. 

So supporting teachers meant building our own curriculum, a fork of the excellent curriculum from Illustrative Mathematics, optimized for our technology, design, and pedagogy. 

Rich & Digital Curriculum is Rare

Our curriculum is in a really useful position for supporting teacher development: 

  1. It’s rich—by which I mean it invites a broad array of student brilliance: noticings, wonderings, sketches, verbal arguments, equations, graphs, and text responses to interesting questions. Ideas that we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to label “correct” or “incorrect.”

  2. It’s also digital. Students express a lot of that brilliance in a form that’s visible to teachers and the people who support teachers, including site-based coaches and coaches at Desmos. Teachers are able to enact some sophisticated routines through the platform like selecting student ideas, sequencing them, and presenting them. We have visibility into how teachers are taking up those practices.

Lots of curricula is one or the other. The IM curriculum is extremely rich but print-first. Lots of digital curricula only make room for student brilliance in the form of multiple choice responses and numbers—stuff that computers often grade as correct or incorrect.

Continuous, Low-Intensity Teacher Learning

The visibility we have into student ideas and teacher practices has expanded our options for teacher professional development.

We offer teachers a large kick-off session at the start of the school year to get us lined up on some of our hopes and dreams for the year and to get us excited for the work. This session is high intensity and one-time only, and we know the energy and learning dissipates quickly.

So we’re also developing and researching interventions that are lower intensity but continuous. Frequent booster shots if you’ll forgive the timing of that metaphor.

Spiraling the Same Three Ideas

For example, teachers are always in their email. Let’s use that as a medium for professional learning. We know what lesson a teacher taught yesterday, so we send that teacher an email previewing the next lesson through the lens of one of the three themes, which we spiral throughout the year: inviting student brilliance, celebrating it, and developing it, with pedagogical techniques attached.

We offer those ideas to teachers not in a one-off session abstracted from their daily work, but rather as close to the teacher’s practice as we can get: “On this screen, here’s a great moment to tell students, ‘Look, you can’t break mathematics.’ ” These preview emails give teachers essential and generalizable teaching strategies and give us email open rates that email marketers can only dream about.

Big questions now:

  • What are the mid-range interventions? Medium frequency. Medium intensity.

  • How do we use this digital platform for rich student thinking to nourish professional learning community meetings or support site-based coaches? Don’t know.

Also, we’re sitting on a nice pile of data. If you’re a researcher looking for interesting collaborators, let me know at

What else?

  • The bad arithmetic problem that’s designed to go viral went viral again this week. I’m not going to fault your average internet user for passing along a bit of math that’s designed to excite the world’s passion for symbolic pedantry. But if you think math is about more than symbolic pedantry, well, please don’t share the bad arithmetic problem.

  • I’m obsessed with broken graphs. Graphs that reflect some kind of discontinuity or break in the social order itself. Over at Luke O’Neill’s Substack, I saw this grade A broken graph that indicates Americans are diagnosed with cancer at much greater rates at age 65. Over on Twitter, I asked people why.

  • Enjoy this time-lapse video of the introduction and disappearance of the Blockbuster Video franchises in the United States.

  • Education Doesn’t Work is the provocative title of a long essay that invites you to ask yourself, “What do I hope education will do? Is there any evidence it can do that?” If you hope education will bring about economic equality, for example, the evidence invites you to invest your efforts elsewhere.

  • Here is a quote I haven’t gone a week without thinking about since I first read it. “Everyone is mathematically smart as a result of living in the world.