Working towards relevance (Project Launch)

Recently, I’ve cracked open a few great books about teaching and learning  that have inspired me. Katie Martin’s Learner-Centered Innovation and George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset got me thinking and then I hopped into John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course

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I really like teaching mathematics and feel that my classes are engaging and that students actively work on problems nonstop. Estimation 180, visual patterns, WODB and Graphing Stories are some of the starting points for class that then moves to 3-act tasks and other problem-based scenarios. Students continually work together on whiteboard tabletops to discuss, model and justify their solutions. It’s often loud, it has a lot of student talk and I like the dynamic atmosphere. But…

The “but” is that I feel that while my students are highly engaged and are actively solving problems, they miss the big idea that mathematics is a powerful system to help explain and understand this world that we live in. The question from the books and courses is am I moving beyond engagement to empowerment? Am I allowing students the opportunity to grapple with issues and problems that surround us? I’m not sure. Many of my problems are based on events happening around the world but we wrap them up in a class. And what are my students not experiencing? Are they having to define problems, develop solutions and then use mathematics as a tool or for justification of their ideas?

Extended projects in the classroom have more often happened in my science classes instead of mathematics but as I look forward to only teaching mathematics next year, I feel that it will be nice to bring a project or two into the rotation. As such, with two feet pointing in (I hope) the right direction, I’ve dived in to pilot a project. My goal with the next few posts is to keep track of my process through this project and reflect on how it’s going.

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 2.13.31 PMAs part of The Guardian’s City feature, a series of articles and photographs were put together regarding urbanization and the future. Being located in Beijing adds a bit of extra significance – we’re already over 20 million! This was the launching pad for the project. I took an idea of John Spencer – Maker Challenge: Design the Ultimate Tiny House and began modifying. Cities build up, so let’s look at an apartment. Keeping the theme of “tiny” and wanting students to have a physical point of reference, the footprint of our design challenge is the classroom. Our room is a long shoebox that measures approximately 5 x 15 m.

Day 1:Project Kick-off

We began with a silent gallery walk. Students came in to see a variety of images on vertical whiteboards around the room. With a whiteboard marker, they walked around noticing and wondering.


This was followed by an imagine – Imagine that you are a designer of apartments. You have an apartment to design with the same footprint as this classroom. What would it look like? What would be in it? Students individually began sketching out this potential apartment. Some started to realize issues posed by the size constraint but others sketched away without this consideration.


From large water-beds to basketball hoops to blank rooms, students had lots or little ideas as they began work. After a bit, students paused on their work to bring together a list of items and features they thought important to have in designs.



With students invested, we began to dig a bit deeper into the problem and students were asked to generate as many questions as possible. This is hard! Students really struggled to come up with questions and made me realize that they have not had enough opportunity to develop this skill over the year.

The types of questions asked also made me think about the timing of information that I provide to students. With the first class, I gave them a “sneak preview” of the upcoming project prior to the questioning phase and found that the nature of most questions were through the lens of how will I complete the school project? So, I switched it up for the second class and did not give the sneak preview until later. The result? Most of the questions were oriented around the design of the apartment. Students then each took a “burning question” to research and share out with the class.



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