Tag Archives: look for and make use of structure

Learner choice: using appropriate tools strategically takes time and tools

All students benefit from using tools and learning how to use them for a variety of purposes.  If we don’t make tools readily available and value their use, our students miss out on major learning opportunities. (Flynn, 106 pag.)

I’m taking the #MtHolyokeMath #MTBoS course, Effective Practices for Advancing the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics.  Zachary Champagne facilitated the second session and used The Cycling Shop task from Mike Flynn‘s TMC article.


You can see the notes I started on paper.


Jim, Casey and I used a pre-made Google slide deck provided to us to collaborate since we were located in GA, MA, and CA.  We challenged ourselves to consider wheels after working with 8 wheels.

Here’s what our first table looked like.


Now, I was having trouble keeping up with the number of wheels and the number of cycles.  So I did this:


This made it both better and worse for me (and for my group).

Here’s an interesting thing.  I’ve been studying, practicing, and teaching the Standards for Mathematical Practices. Jennifer Wilson and I have written a learning progression to help learners learn to say I can use appropriate tools strategically.

Mathematically proficient students consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem. (Sage, 6 pag.)

Clearly, I was not even at Level 1 during class.  Not once – not once – during class did it occur to me how much a spreadsheet would help me, strategically.


The spreadsheet would calculate the number of wheels automatically for each row so that I could confirm correct combinations.  (You can view this spreadsheet and make a copy to play with if you are interested.)

When making mathematical models, [mathematically proficient students] know that technology can enable them to visualize the results of varying assumptions, explore consequences, and compare predictions with data. (Sage, 6 pag.)

With a quick copy and paste, I could tackle any number of wheels using my spreadsheet.  I can look for and make use of structure emerged quickly when using the spreadsheet strategically.  (I want to also highlight color as a strategic tool.) Play with it; you’ll see.


[Mathematically proficient students] are able to use technological tools to explore and deepen their understanding of concepts. (Sage, 6 pag.)


There is no possible way I would have the stamina to seek all the combinations for 25 or 35 wheels by hand, right?

Students have access to a wide assortment of tools that they must learn to use for their mathematical work. The sheer volume of possibilities can seem overwhelming, but with time and experience, students can learn how to choose the right tool for the task at hand and how to use it strategically to reach their goal. (Flynn, 106 pag.)

Important to repeat, “with time and experience, students can learn how to choose the right tool for the task at hand and how to use it strategically to reach their goal.

For this to happen, we need to have a solid understanding of the kinds of tools available, the purpose of each tool, and how students can learn to use them flexibly and strategically in any given situation. This also means that we have to make these tools readily available to students, encourage their use, and provide them with options so they can decide which tool to use and how to use it. If we make all the decisions for them, we remove that critical component of MP5 where students make decisions based on their knowledge and understanding of the tools and the task at hand. (Flynn, 106 pag.)

To be clear, a spreadsheet was available to me during class, but I didn’t see it.  How might we make tools readily available and visible for learners to choose?

When we commit to empower students to deepen their understanding, we make tools available and encourage exploration and use, so that each learner makes decisions for themselves. In other words, how do we help learners to level up in both content and practice?

What if we make I can look for and make use of structure; I can use appropriate tools strategically; and I can make sense of tasks and persevere in solving them essential to learn for every learner?

How might we offer tools and time?

It’s about learning by doing, right?

Flynn, Michael. Beyond Answers: Exploring Mathematical Practices with Young Children. Portland, Maine.: Stenhouse, 2017. Print.

Flynn, Mike. “The Cycling Shop.” Nctm.org. Teaching Children Mathematics, Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.

Common Core State Standards.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Contemporary Early Childhood Education (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

A lesson in making use of structure from/with @jmccalla1

Jeff McCalla, Confessions of a Wannabe Super Teacher, published some really good thinking about collaboration vs. competition.  In his post, he describes challenging his learners to investigate the following:

Which of these product rules could be used to quickly expand (x+y+3)(x+y-3)? Now, try expanding the expression.

Product Rules

Jennifer Wilson, Easing the Hurry Syndrome, and I have been tinkering with and drafting #LL2LU learning progressions for the Standards of Mathematical Practice. I have really struggled to get my head wrapped around the meaning of I can look for and make use of structure, SMP-7.  The current draft, to date, looks like this:

What if I tried to apply my understanding of I can look for and make use of structure to Jeff’s challenge?

Scan 1

Note: There is a right parenthesis missing in the figure above.
It should have (x+y)² in the area that represents (x+y)(x+y).

What if we coach our learners to make their thinking visible? What if we use learning progressions for self-assessment, motivation, and connected thinking? I admit that I was quite happy with myself with all that pretty algebra, but then I read the SMP-7 learning progression. Could I integrate geometric and algebraic reasoning to confirm structure? How flexible am I as a mathematical thinker? I lack confidence with geometric representation using algebra tiles, so it is not my go to strategy. However, in the geometric representation, I found what Jeff was seeking for his learners.  I needed to see x+y as a single object.

How might we model making thinking visible in conversation and in writing? How might we encourage productive peer-to-peer discourse around mathematics? How might we facilitate opportunities for in-the-moment self- and peer-assessment that is formative, constructive, and growth-oriented?

SMP7: Look For and Make Use of Structure #LL2LU

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 4.43.58 PMWe want every learner in our care to be able to say

I can look for and make use of structure.

But…What if I think I can’t? What if I have no idea what “structure” means in the context of what we are learning?

How might we offer a pathway for success? What if we provide cues to guide learners and inspire interrogative self-talk?

Level 4
I can integrate geometric and algebraic representations to confirm structure and patterning.

Level 3
I can look for and make use of structure.

Level 2
I can rewrite an expression into an equivalent form, draw an auxiliary line to support an argument, or identify a pattern to make what isn’t pictured visible.

Level 1
I can compose and decompose numbers, expressions, and figures to make sense of the parts and of the whole.

Are observing, associating, questioning, and experimenting the foundations of this Standard for Mathematical Practice? It is about seeing things that aren’t readily visible.  It is about remix, composing and decomposing what is visible to understand in different ways.

How might we uncover and investigate patterns and symmetries? What if we teach the art of observation coupled with the art of inquiry?

In The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Dryer, Gregersen, and Christensen describe what stops us from asking questions.

So what stops you from asking questions? The two great inhibitors to questions are: (1) not wanting to look stupid, and (2) not willing to be viewed as uncooperative or disagreeable.  The first problem starts when we’re in elementary school; we don’t want to be seen as stupid by our friends or the teacher, and it is far safer to stay quiet.  So we learn not to ask disruptive questions. Unfortunately, for most of us, this pattern follows us into adulthood.

What if we facilitate art of questioning sessions where all questions are considered? In his post, Fear of Bad Ideas, Seth Godin writes:

But many people are petrified of bad ideas. Ideas that make us look stupid or waste time or money or create some sort of backlash. The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones.  Painters, musicians, entrepreneurs, writers, chiropractors, accountants–we all fail far more than we succeed.

How might we create safe harbors for ideas, questions, and observations? What if we encourage generating “bad ideas” so that we might uncover good ones? How might we shift perspectives to observe patterns and structure? What if we embrace the tactics for asking disruptive questions found in The Innovator’s DNA?

Tactic #1: Ask “what is” questions
Tactic #2: Ask “what caused” questions
Tactic #3: Ask “why and why not” questions
Tactic #4: Ask “what if” questions

What are barriers to finding structure? How else will we help learners look for and make use of structure?

[Cross posted on Easing the Hurry Syndrome]

Dyer, Jeff, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston, MA: Harvard Business, 2011. Print.