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Trending Topics in Education: Desmos [Podcast]

Posted by Carrie Watkins on Jan 16, 2017 5:30:00 AM
Topics: podcast

Math is one of the most divisive subjects students encounter in their academic career, with some students coming away from it enthralled, and some hoping to never see another fraction again. Desmos is working to help students love math by changing the verbs from "calculate" and "execute" to "create" and "discuss." Dan Meyer, a former classroom math teacher and chief academic officer at Desmos, talks about the need to bring the noise back to the math classroom by unplugging the headphones, and getting students working together to love math.

Trending Topics in Education with Carrie Watkins


Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast, where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content in education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct, and today we are talking with Dan Meyer, the chief academic officer for Desmos. Thank you for joining us, Dan.

Dan Meyer: Thanks for having me.

Carrie: It seems like people are split into two camps: those who love math, and those who avoid it at all costs. Desmos is there to help those people in the latter category. Talk a little bit about Desmos and how you got started, and where you guys are going from here.

Dan: Yeah, so we want to help the world learn math and love to learn math at the same time, which is not always the same thing. Some people can learn math but never want to have anything to do with it ever again once it's no longer a required course, so we want people to love it also. We started with one product, a digital calculator as powerful as any you can buy that is hardware, that is made of plastic and silicon, and it's free online at It's a powerful tool to help you solve math problems that you are assigned, to do mathematical explorations, and we also now more recently have been creating curriculum activities ourselves.

No longer content to play a supporting role to other peoples' curriculum, which may be asking students to do really dull problems that we can help them solve, but we want to create the activities that students do in classes themselves. We have this other free tool, the Activity Builder, which lets people use our technology to create some really interesting digital activities, or to use the ones that we create ourselves, much more powerful and interesting than the usual kind of multiple choice problems that you find in a lot of online mathematics.

Carrie: Can you give an example of one of those activities?

Dan: Yeah, for sure. We have an activity called Marbleslides, very easily Googled. I was just looking at some student work on it just now. What it is is whereas a typical problem I ask students to graph this particular line through these points, that kind of thing. What we do is we ask students to create a line that sends some marbles, which fall from the sky and have gravity to them, and the marbles then roll down the line as though it were a ramp through some stars. It creates this game-like environment that's full of exploration, prediction, students trying one thing, it not working, then trying a different thing and learning in the process. That's one kind of activity that we create.

We love expanding the set of verbs that students do in their math classes. It usually is like, "Calculate numbers," or "Select multiple choice items," that kind of thing. We want to expand those verbs to verbs like, "to create," "to argue," "to predict."

When people say they don't like math a lot of times they don't like a certain kind of math that they were exposed to all throughout their schooling.

Carrie: Math also tends to focus on very finite, very specific outcomes. Myself, I was a very much an English person, somebody who loved to write, and see the world, and observe. It sounds like you are kind of crossing over when you're asking students to create in math.

Dan: I think that's right. Yeah, you can ELA in other subjects. You can impose more of yourself and your own way of seeing the world, your own way of phrasing what you're seeing in the world. You can impose that on the subject and see yourself in the subject, but oftentimes in math class it just feels like for the student, you're just retracing steps that someone else has already walked along pavement hundreds and thousands of years earlier. That's super interesting for a certain subset of kids that often winds up growing up to be math teachers, but less so for a lot of other kids that we want to reach.

Carrie: What age group do these activities focus on?

Dan: These activities are largely at the moment from grades six through 12, which reflects largely just my own background as a high school math teacher, and also the background of the teachers that we've hired, and also that our initial product was a graphing calculator. We focus on those ages.

Carrie: How has it grown in the time that you've been there, and where would you like to see Desmos go from academic standpoint?

Dan: Great question. Wow. Really helpful for me to think about verbally here. What I'd love to see is I'd love to see no more barriers for students to use. These calculators that they have to buy, I loved them as a kid, but they're so expensive, and I hear from so many schools and students who just can't afford these calculators. The citizens of the town or whatever, the parents of the school, they already paid increased tuition, or a parcel tax, or a bond or whatever to buy these computers, these Chromebooks or iPads or whatever, and so they shouldn't have to buy another piece of hardware when the one they have is super powerful. I want to see every student using a free powerful calculator, not having to pay that extra expense. I want to see assessment companies allow these calculators on those tests that tends to drive what calculators they buy. I would love to see every student who is using a computer in math class using it in ways that are powerful and educational, that don't just feel like you're taking a test on a computer every day in class, that expose students what we know works well for math education and what's so interesting about math education. A good one.

Carrie: What problem is Desmos trying to solve?

Dan: The big one is just in general how do we help teachers and students learn math and love to learn math. That's the big one. That takes on a lot of different characters. I think a more immediate challenge, a smaller one, is the fact that when students get computers in math class it often winds up quieting the class down considerably. In good classes, in productive ones, we know that students are negotiating mathematical ideas, they're arguing about math, they're posing ideas similar to an English classroom, but you give them a computer and headphones and they're just like they're plugged into the computer, they're clicking multiple choice questions, and they're watching videos, and it is dead quiet and boring for all but a few. We're trying to tug the conversation a bit more towards social digital learning. When you and I are on our computers, we use computers so we love how it connects us to other people, like how you emailed me, and how we're on Skype right now.

That's the stuff that's really so exhilarating, but so common that we all forget how exhilarating it is. Yet, when we go into classrooms with computers, we lose all of that interaction. It becomes you and the box, and you're talking to the box, and the box talks back, but you are not connected to your classmates at all. We are working on right now a set of classroom conversation tools, tools that help teachers in classes have amazing mathematical conversations with students. That's the current big question I'm wondering how to preserve what you and I love about computers when they go into the math classroom.

When you talk about math questions, are you talking about math philosophy? I mean, what would be an example of one of these larger math questions to get students talking?

Dan: Anything from as small, like for the primary grades, we have these things called Number Talks, which is just like let me ask you to, we'll ask the class to multiply 25 times 18, which is a couple numbers that are off the times tables. It's not like a known fact to them, and you have them work on it for a bit, and then you come to find out that you got four or five different ways of doing that, whether you have people decomposing numbers in interesting ways. By sharing those, students come to realize that math has some creativity to it, some variance, some multiple ways of being right, not just the one that's in the back of the textbook. On a computer-based problem, that would just be 25 times 18, type the answer into the box, hit submit and see if you were right. In a stronger classroom with students, you'd have this conversation of "How did you solve that?" Then I would put two methods on the board and ask students, "How do you see the connection between one to the other," because you know that connection exists because they both got the same answer at the end of it. That's just one different way out of so many of how math can be social, interesting, conversational, and with computers, it often isn't.

Carrie: It gets to the underlying fundamentals of math that students need, even though as they progress through their career, and their life outside of academics, they do have that calculator built into their phone, or their smart device, or their computer, and they can just type in those numbers, but without that underlying fundamental of why things work the way that they do, it's difficult to get the advanced knowledge around math that I think a lot of students miss out after about grades three or four.

Dan: There's a lot to your comment there. Definitely we want students to be able to have fluency certainly. There's a place for having them practice just times table problems for sure. There's great ways to have them do that too, and there's poor ways. It think that for a large number of people who are very successful, like yourself, you don't use math in your job to the same degree that we often tell students, "You need math or you'll wind up destitute and homeless." It just isn't true. There's lots of people out there that have carved out great careers without math, but that means to me that we need to emphasize in math class a lot of the skills of reasoning and argument that will be useful to people in their careers, whether or not it explicitly uses math. Arguing from evidence, trying to be empathetic to how someone else solved a problem or what they're thinking, these are exceptionally valuable skills, no matter what you wind up doing. I hope you'd agree.

Carrie: One of the issues that I've seen around ed tech and math related is the concept of chocolate covered broccoli. At the end of the day, you're still doing timed tests for math problems. How does Desmos get away from sort of that rote memorization in the typical math ed tech space?

Dan: First of all, we just try to put off the table the usual ways of getting kids interested in boring math, which is to say, give them an avatar, give them badges, give them hit points, experience points, that kind of thing. Instead, we look to research on curiosity predates all of the ed tech bells and whistles and chocolate covered vegetables. For one thing, we look to prediction, putting students in a place where they predict what will happen next, and then through math they solve what happens next. Then they see if they were right about that as a cycle. Prediction has been linked to a lot of interest.

We also try to again expand what verbs students do. If students are getting bored calculating or computing sums over, and over, and over again, the answer isn't to give them points for computing sums. It's to change the verb from "compute" to say "create," like create your own problem. Then to share, share that with a neighbor. Correct, like correct their work once they're done, or to argue. Here are two students that are arguing about this particular sum and the best way to do it. Can you referee that argument, to expand and to create multi-grain bread out of what was once just white bread.

That's what we try to do, just broaden the scope of the work rather than making dull work superficially more interesting for a small stretch.

Carrie: You were in the classroom for a number of years. I also saw that you did some time at Google, and then now you've been in the ed tech space for a little while as well. From your perspective, what do you see is the most interesting thing happening in education at large right now?

Dan: The broad education trend that fascinates me right now is this shortage of teachers that we have in any subject, though math tends to be hit pretty hard on account of I think the opportunities there are for people who know universal math outside of math classroom. Regardless, there's a shortage. I looked it up. I found 37 articles on 37 states talking about their teacher shortage and all the different desperate ways they're trying to get teachers in the classroom. There's some real serious macro stuff going on. What is preventing or discouraging student teachers from entering the workforce? Is it rhetoric? Is it autonomy on the job? Assessments? I don't know what the answer is, and do we care? Do we care that teaching is not necessarily seen as a career but more as a stepping stone, like something you do for a few years and then move onto something else, which to be fair is what I did, but is there value in having a teacher on a site for 30 years who knows the kids, knows their parents, knows their parents' parents because she taught all of them? There's just the structure of schooling I find to be a really fascinating and harrowing question right now.

The move towards personalization with the help of technology might be a part of the solution, or do you think it needs to be something bigger than that?

Dan: There's a certain definition of personalization that I think may be helpful. The current one that we typically see is I think very counterproductive in classes, which is the one where the student plugs into the box, listens on headphones, does practice problems, goes on to the next. It's a diversion of personalization that says you can go at your own pace through a really dull sequence of mathematics. We won't prevent you from moving forward. We're not going to stop you. It's personalization in that way, in terms of time, like where you are, but it winds up being really dull mathematics. It's like having a buffet in front of you and you can have anything you want, but all of it tastes like garbage. That's what we're looking at right now. Even more than that, I don't think that the computer gets it right a lot of the time when the computer is trying to say, "Does the student get it?" The computer says, "Yeah, the student does. Go ahead and move on to the next." From my experience, oftentimes the computer gives very bad diagnoses of student error.

I'm really fascinated by the centaur model that we see in medicine and chess, where a human versus a computer, the computer wins that, but a human plus a computer beats a computer by itself. There's models where computers enable and enhance a human's work, and that's what I'm most excited about at the moment, how to make the human teacher more powerful, able to make more accurate assessments of students, and to have better conversations in class and a better relationship between students and mathematics. That excites me.

Carrie: If we have a school that would be interested in learning more about Desmos, about the graphing calculator, or about the activities that you guys provide in the curriculum, how would they go about learning more about Desmos?

Dan: Head to, or just Google "Desmos calculator," and you'll pop up, with no login or no pay wall, the most powerful online calculator you can find. It's just there for you, so it'll help you make sense of math. Then for teachers, head to where we have hundreds of free activities that will make the computers in your class seem meaningful and valuable to you, as opposed to an impediment or chocolate covered broccoli. Those are two great places to start. I'm Dan from Desmos. You can Google me, and my email address and contact form is real easy to find. My blog is also. Love to chat with your listeners and answer any of their questions that they have.

Carrie: Great. The calculator is available on what platforms?

Dan: Any platform that has a web browser, essentially. There's an Android app and a iOS app, and then it's also available on the web. If your device accesses the web, it will be able to use Desmos.

Carrie: Well, thank you very much for your time. I'm very excited to see how Desmos progresses in the curriculum in math, and hope that many more people come to love math because of what you guys are doing in this space. Thank you very much for your time.

Dan: Thanks Carrie.

For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast, or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your Account Manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter, @CarrieJWatkins.

About Carrie Watkins

Carrie is a former digital consultant for MBS Direct, who specialized in traveling around the country to learn about new products and services MBS Direct can provide to partner schools and bringing those ideas back into the office to work on with the digital solutions team.

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