Thursday, November 3, 2011

Designing Algebra

I am conflicted.

I am a faithful follower of the school of thought that places a high value on design: aesthetic appeal, artistic creativity, and user friendliness. I come from a family of artists, I am well-educated in art and design, and I will admit that I spend as much energy on the design of my classroom materials as I do on their content. This balance of focus comes from a deep rooted belief that a good design enhances the content of the material. AND I feel validated in my belief system. Many wonderful and successful math teachers will back me up: Dan Meyer and Edward Burger are two of my biggest idols.

Unfortunately, the conflict in me comes from my own experience. If I pause to reflect and remember the math teachers in my own life that were inspiring, engaging, and effective... these are definitely NOT the ones with the flashy materials. I recall handwritten worksheets and problems scrawled across blackboards and overhead projectors. I remember sloppy handwriting and chaotic classroom designs. I remember poorly photocopied graph paper and random threads of impromptu discussions. But I also remember the intrigue, focus, and fascination with all things mathematical. I remember struggle, laughter, embarrassment, and pride. 

I'm willing to accept that perhaps my innate abilities and predisposed comfort with mathematics put me in a class of students that differed from the majority, but I cannot shake the idea that perhaps there is something bigger at the core of good math instruction. And dare I suggest that perhaps design and structure can actually detract from the spontaneity and chaos that is seated in the heart of truly excellent math instruction?

I, for one, am not ready to abandon my presentation values, but I'm feeling a tug, and I'm starting to more fully appreciate the wisdom of the vast base of experience out there. As I examine my own curricula, I find myself paying closer attention to content. I also am now beginning to look for open spaces to exploit... making sure there is room for spontaneous exploration, encouraging tangents, and hoping that for every carefully designed solution, new unanswered questions will emerge. This is a challenging, but thrilling task for me.

I'll leave with these thoughts, knowing full well that my ideas are evolving. I hope you will add your wisdom:

  1. Good design can enhance good content, but does not add value to poor content.
  2. Quality design is especially useful to enhance approach-ability, which for many students is the biggest blockade in their math education.
  3. Presentation skills are important life skills - necessary for good teachers and students.
  4. Mathematics is chaotic. Removing chaos and spontaneity from the mathematics classroom is detrimental to the educational atmosphere. Adding the right kind of chaos is an under-appreciated art.


  1. Many a mediocre poster/book report/assignment garnered an above average grade because of glitter, attractive borders and/or a glossy cover. Put that in your blog-pipe and smoke it!

  2. Hah! Touché. And I totally agree: I have slid my way through lots of situations riding on artistic glitz. Many mediocre lesson plans also garner unwarranted praise because of color worksheets, cute clipart, etc. Some of them are mine.

    But, this is part of my conflict. Like it says in #3 above, "Presentation skills are important life skills." The best presentation rises to the top, almost regardless of content. We know this to be true, both from personal experience and from viewing the world around us. And so, if we re-evaluate the goal: are we trying to get the best grade/be top-selling or are we trying to contain the best quality content? I think fabulous design can get us to the first, but not necessarily the second.

    So, I think I should perhaps clarify #1: "Good design can enhance good content. Good design does not improve the content if the content is poor." I think you are right though. It does improve the perception of the content though!