Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mumford and Math

I'm a big fan of Mumford and Sons. I only started listening to them last year, and quickly moved them to the top of my playlist. When their new cd came out a couple of weeks ago, I of course purchased it as soon as I could and it really is as good as everyone says it is. Two quality albums in a world where technology and catchy tunes are considered good music these days is uncommon. I began doing some research as to what makes them so good.
It turns out for their first album they sat and wrote each song, one by one, until it was perfect. Apparently it took a great deal of time and effort and produced some frustration at times. In the end they produced exactly what they wanted: an album with every song exactly as they envisioned it. For the new album they started to write songs in a similar fashion. However, this time around, they quickly realized how long it was taking to perfect every detail in each song before moving on. They changed their writing style for a bit at this point. They played a game: each member went to a separate corner of the house and wrote as many songs as they wanted, not worrying about the details, not worrying about the overall quality if it was 'album' worthy, not worrying about anything. They just sat, wrote tunes, and wrote lyrics. After the 10 minutes they each came together and shared what they had come up with, picking the ones that they thought were the best. Then, as a group, they perfected each song.
I've never heard of any group doing something like this, and it intrigued me. I got to thinking about Sir Ken Robinson and what he would say about this. Talk about creativity! Then I started to think how this could be implemented into my profession. It was clearly a good strategy to use in the music business when all of the members are experts in music. Would the results be the same for a group of expert teachers?
Now, I don't consider myself to be an expert teacher by any stretch of the meaning. I make mistakes on a regular basis, I teach poor lessons just like everyone else; I approach everything I do with an open mind thinking about how I can improve upon my job. But still, what would happen? I decided to put it to the test. During our department meeting today we gave this process a try. Here's how it went down:

1. We started by writing a couple topics down that fit into one of these categories: something I wish I could teach, something I have difficulty teaching, something I feel uncomfortable teaching. We came up with linear programming, simple harmonic motion, and law of sines/cosines.
2. I let each of my colleagues choose which one they wanted to work on (it ended up that half went to simple harmonic motion and the other half went to linear programming).
3. I asked them to write me a full lesson on their topic within 10 minutes, ignoring the details but simply by establishing a framework, opening, closing, etc. As a department we will fill in the details to create a high quality lesson.

I did this for a number of reasons. For starters, I was curious. What would be the outcome of this exercise? Would we really have some of the best lessons we've ever written or would they be just as good as what we've been doing for the past x-years. Secondly, I wanted to get my department communicating more about things over than 'do you have a worksheet/test for that?' I want us to be a social, collaborative group that feels comfortable bouncing ideas off of each other and willing to actually work together. Finally, I wanted to expand some people's comfort areas and get them to think outside the box. I'm not quite sure how each member plans their lessons, but I imagine its safe to bet they don't do it in 10 minutes. I'm also willing to bet that they don't do it with no materials in front of them, using purely what's in their head. I purposely did not tell them the details of this plan ahead of time because I did not want them bringing content maps, lesson plans, or textbooks to pull from. I wanted them to be creative. I wanted them to make the connections between the math and figure out a way to show it to their students. I wanted them to teach a concept in a way that made sense, not because a textbook said to do it a certain way. I feel that all too often we teach to what the textbook says, rather than teaching to the kids. This mindset bothers me and I wish to change it. For example, why aren't the trig functions, the unit circle, and the graphs all taught simultaneously? Sure, that's A LOT of information to through at the students at the same time. But doesn't it make more sense to show them how its all connected? Rather than most textbooks which have them in different chapters? You wouldn't have to go into huge amount of detail right away, but you could at least illustrate why it all works out the way it does. I wanted my department to take part in this exercise because I want all of us to be able to think about what is really going on in each of our subjects/topics. I want us to focus more on trying to develop good lessons and focus less on the material. By putting a time limit on the planning, I'm hoping that forces some creativity. By getting rid of the pressure of coming up with the details, I'm hoping that we can relax a bit and come up awesome introductions and summarizers and work together for the rest. I think that this can have a really positive impact if everyone approaches it in the right way. If anyone looks at this as a pointless exercise and doesn't venture out of their comfort zone, then it will turn into a quick way to produce the same mediocre lessons that have been teaching. I'm hoping for a positive experience and to try this again in the future, or at least to have members try it on their own when they get stuck. We shall see what happens.


  1. This is a terrific professional development activity. I'm totally stealing this for our next math professional development session.

    How well did it work anyway?

  2. I was psyched for this, but we ended up not finishing it completely. We had other things to discuss, and we didn't have enough time to finish up the activity. Initially, my department gave me confused looks of disbelief, but they got to planning right away. We ran out of time to talk about what everyone came up with. And since then, we've been occupied with other items. So... its turned into one of those things that we started but never finished, which bothers me a lot.