Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rational Expressions Announces $1 Million Prize for Solution of Teaching Problems

Prizes and contests spur innovation. Think of the Millenium Prize Problems or the X-Prize. The other thing that spurs innovation? Lists of problems. Like Hilbert's. Or Jay-Z's.

In the spirit of all these lists and contests, I'm happy to announce the Really Important Teaching Problems (RITP). These are some of the most difficult, knotty problems that teachers are grappling with in this new century. Work on these problems continues because of their importance and seriousness.

Successful solution of any of the RITP problems will be awarded with the following:
  1. A blog post about your solution
  2. One-million dollars
(At this point it seems necessary to mention the generosity of the Gates Foundation.)

Attempts were made at succinct and direct statements of the problem. Problem were selected with input from our board of advisors. Without any further delay, I present to you the RITP problems:

  1. The (Much) Better Lesson Problem: Is it possible to use the internet to create a free curriculum of the highest quality?
  2. Khan's Conjecture: Can classroom learning be personalized to the stage that it performs as well as a high quality tutor?
  3. Meyer Theory : How close can a classroom teacher get to completely engaging every student with every topic?
  4. The Theoretical Problem: Can good math teaching be well-described, understood, and taught to new teachers?
[The board has approved changes to this list of problems, contingent on convincing arguments being dropped into the comments of this post.]

So, get on it, everybody. I don't want to keep all this money for myself.


  1. So, like, there is a finder's fee for coming up with one of those questions, right?
    It is good to get these questions/problems out there so there is discussion. One thing Twitter and the edublogosphere has shown me is that positive change can take place in our teaching when we discuss the problems, collaborate on possible solutions, and refuse to sit back and wait for the "powers that be" to come up with solutions for us. We are the change, so let's do it right.
    Just tell Mr. Gates to make the check out to . . .

  2. Problem 2 (Khan's Conjecture) can be done if we define a classroom to contain only one student. Not feasible, of course, but maybe we can get some sort of reasoning by induction...?

    And I am being (at least somewhat) serious here; at what point do we declare that a class of size (n+1) can no longer be personalized to the same degree as a class of size n? Does it have to be at size 2, or are there some other variables we can manage to ensure it's higher?

  3. In response to (1), I'll claim that the answer is "yes". I feel like I've built curricula of high quality, and this has been made possible by resources available on the internet--not least of which are the teachers I've met here. And these curricula are free, in that I didn't have to buy (much) to make them, and I put them out there for free as I am able. So, yes.
    But I don't think that this is the question you're meaning to ask. I think you probably mean "Can we crowdsource an ultimate curriculum?" And my answer to that is "no". That's because--in my opinion and experience--curriculum and teacher are intimately bound together. I can share tasks and worksheets and ideas with you, but I can't transplant to you my curriculum. You can take what's mine and make it yours, but that's up to every individual. Curriculum isn't set of stuff--it's a living, thoughtful process.
    And so here's a third answer: "yes", we can use the internet to create a free curriculum of the highest quality. That's because we can use the internet to create thoughtful, seeking, creative teachers by building a community of sharing and dialogue. Because building a great curriculum is what great teachers do--out of the pieces of their own experiences.
    Do three answers get me three million dollars? :)
    Also, I vote for them being called Really Important Problems of Teaching, because RIPT is more pronounceable (and awesomely so).

    1. No disagreement, Justin. RIPT is way better, and your points about curriculum are absolutely right.

      But, then again, schools are paying a ton of money for something, right? And it's not particularly good, right? Can we replace it with something better?

      That's what I was trying to get at. Am I still confused?

    2. I'm being made to choose a textbook series. Regardless of my opinion that with a little time, some sweat equity, and the right resources, a great curriculum can be had for tens of thousands less than what we are looking at spending now. But it is going to take a lot of effort to show and convince parents/community members/etc. that you really might not need a textbook to successfully teach math.
      To Justin, you are right that you can't crowd source a curriculum, but you definitely can crowd source the resources to create that curriculum.

    3. @Michael Schools are totally paying tons of cash for materials that aren't particularly good. I don't think there's much of a chance that we can change this in a top-down fashion (too many vested interests), but I do think the future looks very bright for encouraging individual and small groups of teachers to opt out of the Greater Textbook Hegemony. The rate at which the online math ed community is growing and deepening is incredibly exciting.

      @Chris Totally. That the crowdsourcing of resources for curricula is possible is what I meant by my first "yes". There may be new platforms, collections, or watering holes in the future, but there is plenty out there now if one is committed to looking. And I feel like some level of commitment to looking is essential--any teacher who is waiting for the internet to serve up and organize curricular resources on a silver platter might as well just use a textbook. There would really be no difference, I think. This is not to be on a high horse--I don't blame or look down on anyone for not ditching textbooks. There are many factors in my situation that allow me to use them as little as I do. But I desperately want every teacher to feel both empowered and encouraged to be a builder of curriculum--to some degree--and not just a transmitter.

  4. I gave some thought to Khan's Conjecture this summer. I put together a blended learning cycle that I am using in my class. The social interactions (student/student and student/teacher) seem superior to a tutoring situation.

    Please donate any of my winnings to the human fund.

    1. Paul gets at least a stipend for referencing Seinfeld. Happy/Merry Festivus!

  5. I think the main problem is what students don't do outside of class, at least in those cases where the course syllabus is too large relative student prior mathematical experience to fit within the time allowed for lessons. So my question is: how do we get students so engaged with math that they put at least the necessary amount of effort into math between classes? This necessary amount will of course depend on what's happening in the lessons themselves.

    1. "So my question is: how do we get students so engaged with math that they put at least the necessary amount of effort into math between classes?"

      You can't.

  6. My best suggestion is to embrace confusion.
    Acknowledge confusion, educate both teachers and students about confusion: How confusion can block learning because we're uncomfortable with confusion, but in reality confusion can be very helpful in pinpointing what it is that we don't understand. The main reason people avoid confusion is that we're taught that confusion is bad, that it implies poor thinking, which is not at all the case, ignoring confusion is more likely the cause of poor thinking, not even acknowledging that you're confusion just keeps you from learning.

    1. Just an example:
      If you confuse getting something wrong with failure, you're stuck.

      If you realize that you confused getting it wrong with failure you're already learning, and may see that being wrong is not bad in itself, it was confusing being wrong with failure that discouraged you.
      So you probably figure out that "unconfusing" being wrong with failure taught you something, so you might get encouraged to look at what you can learn from "unconfusing" whatever made you confused in the first place and gave you the wrong answer.

    2. Confusion may even be at the core of teaching's biggest issues. Confusing teaching with learning, that is if you assume that when something is taught then learning takes place. Maybe it does, but if you assume it does chances are you don't identify whether teaching problems are with the teacher, the student, or the relationship between them.

      So regarding 1)
      Yes I think it is possible, but if you confuse learning over the internet with learning in a physical location you might forget the importance of the teacher-student relationship, the importance of a two way feedback process.

      Regarding 2)
      If you confuse learning with understanding the information provided then you will have no foundation for personalized interaction, as persons are more than what they understand, they are whole minds and they are also their relationships. So, learning should rather be about developing the mind, the capacity to learn and to relate what you learn.

      Concerning 3)
      Still somewhat confused about how I should answer this, working on it though ;)

      Concerning 4)
      I think this also is confusing teaching and learning in some way, by thinking of it as creating a product, rather than seeing it as a continuous development process which you want to start off, but after that process needs to be complex enough to self-organize in some way, that is teach teacher to teach themselves and teach others to teach themselves and others.

  7. Neat! I actually had a similar idea a while ago; the contest would involve crafting "super lessons" as part of a challenge to increase achievement by at least one standard deviation. The difficulty with the problems outlined in this post are how to determine the goal has been reached? Which metrics will be used? How might we know when we reach the goals?

  8. 1. Every teacher creates his or her curriculum daily. For free. Some of them use books, some don't. It's pretty much a done deal, so I don't understand this question.

    2. Performs as well as a high quality tutor? How good would that be? I am a high quality tutor, and to my knowledge, there's no research demonstrating that tutors do better than teachers, or indeed any research on tutors at all. So this question makes no sense. And no, it's not possible to individualize instruction to a level that everyone can learn to proficiency (a better standard), because the bottom half the curve isn't motivated, and won't work without a teacher.

    3. Not close at all, particularly in math. Very few students would take the advanced math required of their own volition.

    4. No. For one thing, there's no consensus on what "good teaching" is. I would shoot myself before I taught like Lemov. Most of the reform charters are as rigid as North Koreans. Progressives are too squishy, but demand everyone else be squishy, too. Besides, who on earth would want everyone to agree and mandate good teaching? We don't do it for lawyering, doctoring, or policing.