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I’m still chewing on Dan Meyer’s talk at Asilomar. His premise was this: video game companies – in order to stay in business – design their products to rope people in and get them hooked. They’re widely successful at doing this; math class has a lot to learn.

No teacher is oblivious to the fact that their class is far less addicting than even the least popular video games, but there are always ways to rationalize. Especially early in my career, I found myself saying this: “Sure, I know how to make class engaging, but first I have to teach boring skill X. Kids, watch me do 1 of these, then you do 10 identical exercises for practice. Then we can do the fun stuff.”

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It’s easy to fall back on the excuse that math class “has all these boring parts that we’re stuck with teaching.” Dan says this doesn’t hold water. It’s all about the task design.

In my previous post, I wrote how I brought in one of Dan’s examples to my math support class. I wanted the kids to practice multiplication, so I asked them a simple question:

Find numbers that add to 25 and multiply them together. Make the result as large as possible.

Every student got that practice I wanted them to, but I didn’t have to force it down their throats. The perplexing task demanded it, and no students pushed back (a rare day, in math support class).

In my Algebra 1 classes, I used this approach to address all the work these students needed on exponents. Here was our opening activity one day:

Kids were a little timid at first, but once the race began for the highest number, the urgency was palpable as kids eagerly practiced the exact rote exercises I would have otherwise placed on a worksheet. This is practicing, but with a purpose.

But this short activity turned into so much more. These students – like those in math support – were hooked. “1 times 4 to the 5th” said the boy who often gets things right. “What about 2 times (-6) to the 14th?” said the frequently-bored girl in 1st period, who I use as a barometer when I want to be hard on myself. “We can use negative numbers!?!? This changes everything.” And many rushed back to work before I could say “Go.”

This task got harder, yes, but it also got more interesting – an essential element of video game design. The class was hungry for any tips that would help them on this pursuit. I restrained myself for some time, letting kids experiment fitting negative numbers into this structure and listening to their audible noises when their mini-experiments about fitting in negative numbers either did or didn’t turn out how they planned. “Why did (-10) x (-5)15 produce an enormous positive number, but (-10) x (-6)16 produce an enormous negative one?” “What the heck is going on here when I plug in (-15) x (10)15 and I get this?”

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Cue a review of scientific notation (so we can see what this number actually is and whether we’ve succeeded at the task!). Let’s also just nail down what negative numbers do when you put them in the blanks – who found something interesting? In some classes, I might fire up a conversation about number sets, and whether negative numbers are actually in the set of whole numbers. I chose not to, because we ended up getting perplexed and roped into a debate over the result when we typed in 10 x 200-200:

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Keeping the momentum
After seeing the purposeful practice that took place, with strong engagement and powerful mathematical inquiry to boot, I want to forgo Kuta Software worksheets for the rest of the year. But finding tasks that engage students in purposeful practice of important mathematical concepts is difficult; more difficult than it should be in 2014. I’ve been scouring the interwebs for other teachers’ work on this and have seen many libraries/banks of tasks that I love – too numerous to list – but I have yet to find a library of tasks specifically centered around tasks of this type. So, to the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere: Help me out! I’ll keep looking for tasks like this, and you do the same. Be in touch soon.

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