PD with Dan, creating intellectual need

This past week was workshop #2 with Dan Meyer, who was invited by the NYCDOE to conduct a three-part PD series. It’s not every day that you get to attend a workshop with him, so I’ve decided to capture each of my experiences. More on workshop #1.

Too make a long story short, it was another outstanding experience. Dan Meyer never ceases to be thought-provoking. He presents the sort of stuff that stays with you long after you get back to your classroom. Here are the details.

The focus of the session was creating intellectual need in our classrooms. He’s advocating for the learning of mathematics that doesn’t need to real world, job world, or even related to student interest. His argument was based on the work of Guershon Harel (article here). Dan believes, and I do too, that we can meaningfully engage our students by creating headaches in our classroom for our students. We shouldn’t be in the business of imposing mathematics where it isn’t wanted or welcomed. I’ve read his headache-inspired posts from his blog, so it was really cool to get to experience first hand his thoughts on the matter.

He hooked us by running through a series of small activities that are examples of creating intellectual need.

  • Little expressions. This creates a need for combining like terms and efficient calculation techniques.
  • Controversy. This creates a need a need for how we communicate and represent mathematics a series of operations.
  • Memory Game. He flashed first a 9-digit number and then a 16-digit number and asked us to remember as many digits as possible. Created a need for scientific notation, an efficient means of mathematical communication.
  • The $20 Bet. He wrote down a number and gave a volunteer ten attempts as guessing what it was. If they could guess his number, he’d give them $20 (he only had $5 though). After each guess, he let the volunteer know if their guess was too high or too low. His number ended up being 87.21! This creates a need for different number families and their relevance.
  • Parallel Lines. Creates a need for precision when calculating and representing two parallel lines. The coordinate plane rescues us.

We then explored two of Guershon Harel’s five components of intellectual need: the need for computation and the need for communication. These two needs were directly tied to the five activities that Dan shared. More on the five intellectual needs here.

Dan mentioned that there are three questions that he asks himself when he attempts to design experiences that create intellectual need.

  1. If [x] is the aspirin, then what’s the headache?
  2. Why did mathematicians invent [x]? Can I put students in that place even for a moment?
  3. How can I help students view [x] as powerful, not punishment?

A common theme throughout the day was how we should get into the habit of turning up the dial slowly. You can always give more information to your class, but you can never take it away. SO TRUE. This connected well with session 1, specifically the use of the white rectangle to remove information and increase access. The introduction to a lesson (the Do Now) was emphasized as a critical phase of creating intellectual need – students must be able access the content however inefficient their means may be.

The afternoon began with an activity creating a need for proper labeling and name-giving in geometry. Dan had a bunch of random points on the screen and had two volunteers each choose one and attempt to describe which point they’d chosen to the other person. Another headache ensued. For the 2nd person, he labeled the points with A, B, C, … and the aspirin was given.

We then were broken up into groups and were given a scenario. They all showcased the opposite of what a needs-based classroom looks like. We were asked perform a makeover. We jigsawed it back together, read the summary of each prescribed remedy from Harel, and everyone in our original group shared. What stemmed from the conversation was awesome: developing a need for the algebraic form of a function. The Points Desmos activity followed, emphasizing the usefulness of inequalities when representing all points that satisfy a given set of conditions.

Lastly, we explored Polygraph as a way of creating a need for math-specific language related parabolas. This was great.

Other interesting bits:

  • The word student means “to take pain” in some language (can’t remember which)
  • Whenever students laugh during an activity, you know their pain has been relieved
  • Algebra is sophisticated version of trial and error
  • Math pedagogy aside, I’m always find it compelling how Dan manages his audience. He greets everyone at the door. His warm use of “friends” and “colleagues” whenever referencing the audience makes everyone feel a sense of togetherness despite being strangers. I also liked his use of the phrase “For those of you that have the answer, say it out loud.”
  • After discussing the need for the algebraic representation of a function, Dan referred to algebra is “a more sophisticated form of trial and error.”

Dan’s Google Doc of the session.


3 thoughts on “PD with Dan, creating intellectual need”

  1. Thanks for your feedback here, Brian, even though I spaced on the end-of-session survey. Any thoughts on how to make that “episodes” section more worthwhile. It’s new in my PD repertoire so I’m looking for ways to improve it or lose it.


    1. First off, thanks for stopping by. I’m flattered. Really.

      Anyway, having the sessions spaced out so far from one another is very tricky. Any feedback that I can offer would probably relate to the connections between the sessions or how each session is opened/closed (like the participant exit slip or survey). It’d be interesting to look at trends (if any) from feedback given over the course of the three sessions, especially if you gave the same questions/prompts each time. Maybe opening each session showcasing the feedback you received would be worthwhile. I’m blabbering now so I’ll stop, but those are few things that come to mind. Thanks again, Dan!


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