Cre8tive Math


A few years ago, I completed a questionnaire to determine my personal operating style. I’m green. Creativity. At first, I questioned the validity of the assessment. I didn’t see myself as creative. I’m not… artsy.

But taking a closer look, the results made sense. I scored very highly in the four strategies that made up creative thinking in this system: brainstorm ideas, challenge assumptions, reframe problems into opportunities, and envision possibilities. To be clear, this was an assessment of preferences, not proficiencies. Also, there are trade-offs; to choose one thing is to reject another. For example, my 98 in reframe and 91 in envision meant zero — zero! — in tune-in to feelings and ten in empathize with others. These results did not suggest that I can’t tune-in and empathize; they did suggest that I don’t want to. Preferences, not proficiencies.

More important to this post, this assessment tool offered a different definition of creativity: “the generation of a wide variety of options, ideas, alternatives and fresh ways of approaching difficult situations and everyday challenges.” BC’s Ministry of Education defines creative thinking, one of the core competencies, as “the generation of new ideas and concepts that have value to the individual or others, and the development of these ideas and concepts from thought to reality.” There are similarities between these two definitions: both talk of the generation of novel ideas; neither talk of art.

Broccoli with Cheese Sauce

The MoE also has this to say: “Core competencies are evident in every area of learning; however, they manifest themselves uniquely in each discipline.

Over the last few years, I’ve sat through many presentations where examples of creative thinking across subject areas have been shared. The examples from mathematics almost always make me cringe. The math song is a common offender. (Usually the topic tips towards the procedural — BEDMAS, the quadratic formula, etc. — but that’s a different post.) Here, creative thinking manifests itself outside of mathematics. It happens in language/fine arts. (Maybe. Talk to a language/fine arts teacher.) You can substitute provincial capitals for divisibility rules and the nature of creative thinking within the task remains unchanged. Math is merely the context.

Worse, the message is that math is unappetizing in and of itself. Broccoli. The cheese sauce that is the math song (or poster, or skit, or diorama, or …) comes at a cost. Limited time means tension — time spent on products versus time spent solving interesting problems and having interesting conversations. Note: in my mind, the opportunity cost isn’t coverage of content; it is engaging students in the “doing” of mathematics.

Yesterday, I attended a meeting where the MoE repeated the message: “By doing the curricular competencies, students will be developing their core competencies.” The math song attempts to have students develop a core competency without doing the curricular competencies.

Et tu, Desmos?

The connection between creativity and art is strong:


I’d like to suggest a better title:


Creative Math is clearly evident. Just click on one of the staff picks and look to the left. Focus not on the equations themselves, but on the thinking behind them. Not on “front mathematics,” but on “mathematics in back.” (A lovely metaphor from Reuben Hersh that I first came across in Tracy Zager’s Becoming The Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had.)

To most math teachers, this title makes no difference. Just me nitpicking. But it matters where teaching includes designing curriculum/learning experiences. If teachers think of creativity in terms of art, they may look to Pinterest when planning; if they think of creativity in terms of ideas, they may dive deeper into Desmos.

Last year, one of my highlights was being invited into a classroom to observe Marbleslides: Lines in action.


I observed students experimenting with new ideas by changing the variables one at a time. They asked “what if…” questions. They made — and checked — predictions. “New ideas” here means new to the students themselves. These new ideas had value, evident in cheers and high fives. “Right here, right now” value, not “real-world,” career, or “when you take Calculus” value.

(The Desmos Teaching Faculty designed the activity with students in mind who were familiar with equations for lines in slope-intercept form and the idea of domain. In the classroom that I visited, the students were not. We worried that introducing restrictions on the domain at the same time as slope-intercept form would overcomplicate things. It didn’t.)

More Mathematical Manifestations

I don’t fault my fellow educators for associating creativity with art. It’s a natural thing to do. We in mathematics education need to articulate better what creative thinking looks like in mathematics. I’ve had some success in asking teachers to sort curricular competencies by core competency. (Here they are, in random order. Venn diagrams work nicely; I let that idea come from teachers themselves.)

There’s still the leap required to go from making these connections to designing curriculum/planning learning experiences with these connections in mind. Rather than listing activities that elicit creativity, like Marbleslides above, it may be helpful to think about the attributes of these tasks.

Marbleslides is immediately accessible and highly extendable (“low floor, high ceiling”). It invites a wide range of responses (multiple solutions). (The teacher can view novel solutions at a glance on the dashboard.) Open questions, like Which one doesn’t belong?, share these attributes, as does Quarter the Cross.

A rich task can have a single solution, but invite a wide range of approaches (multiple strategies). To me, this has less to do with the task/problem itself and more to do with pedagogy. A curriculum that values creative thinking has pedagogical implications. Consider a typical What’s the best deal? task. A step-by-step-worked-examples-now-you-try-one approach to teaching leaves little room for creativity. The strategy — calculate and compare unit prices — is predetermined. What if students were presented with the problem before the strategy? The class would generate several different ways to solve the same problem. They’d see and discuss a wide range of ideas. Note: this doesn’t preclude the teacher from later bringing a particular strategy (e.g., compare unit prices) to the conversation, if necessary. Ask “Why does this strategy make sense?” or “What’s the best strategy?” and students develop another core competency: critical thinking.

Mathematics is creative. Is math class?

In her ShadowCon talk, Tracy Zager shared a word cloud generated from the language mathematicians use to describe their work. Creative sticks out. And invent, curiosity, play, imagination, wonder, etc. The image generated from the language society/teachers use to describe math… not so much.

But I know that there are places where school math is creative. In Surrey Schools (#sd36learn), in the “MathTwitterBlogoSphere” (#MTBoS), and beyond. When I wrote “We in mathematics education need to articulate better what creative thinking looks like in mathematics” above, I really meant “I need to articulate better…” So, I need your help. Did I get it right in this post? Artsy or not, what does mathematical creativity look like in your classroom?


[BC’s Curriculum] “Know-Do-Understand” Model

This year, BC teachers (K-9) implement a new curriculum. For the past two years, much of my focus has been on helping teachers–in all subjects–make sense of the framework of this “concept-based, competency-driven” curriculum. This will be the topic of these next few posts.

In this series on curriculum, I’ll do my best not to use curriculum. There is no agreed upon definition. I imagine that if any educator in the “MathTwitterBlogoSphere” (#MTBoS) followed the link above, she’d be shouting “Those are standards, not curriculum!” Similarly, when #MTBoS folks talk about adopting curriculum, I’m shouting “That’s a resource, not curriculum!”

My union makes the following distinction: “Pedagogy is how we teach. Curriculum is what we teach.” Curriculum as standards. For the most part, this jibes with how curriculum is used in conversations with colleagues and is echoed in this Ministry of Education document. But Dylan Wiliam doesn’t make this distinction: “Because the real curriculum – sometimes called the ‘enacted’ or ‘achieved’ curriculum – is the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms, curriculum is pedagogy.” Curriculum as experiences. Or pedagogy.

Rather than curriculum, I’ll try to stick with learning standards, learning resources, or learning experiences.

Three elements–Content, Curricular Competencies, and Big Ideas–make up the “what” in each subject and at each grade level. Last summer, the Ministry of Education simplified this as the “Know-Do-Understand” (“KDU”) model. The video below describes how content (what students will know), curricular competencies (what students will do), and big ideas (what students will understand) can be combined to direct the design of learning activities in the classroom.

I imagined planning a proportional reasoning unit in Mathematics 8 using the KDU model and shared my thinking throughout this process.

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Teachers can start with any of the three elements; I started by identifying content. (It’s a math teacher thing.) Then, I paired this content with a big idea. In English Language Arts and Social Studies, it makes sense to talk about you, as the teacher, making decisions about these combinations. In Mathematics and Science, this mapping is straightforward: algebra content pairs with a big idea in algebra, not statistics; biology content pairs with a big idea in biology, not Earth sciences. (BC math teachers may notice that the big idea above is different than the one currently posted on the Ministry of Education website. It may reflect a big idea from a previous draft. I can’t bring myself to make that change.)

Identifying curricular competencies to combine with content and big ideas is where it gets interesting. Here, my rationale for choosing these two curricular competencies was simple: problems involving ratios, rates, and percent lend themselves to multiple strategies… we should talk about them. The video makes the point that I could go in the opposite direction; if I had started with “use multiple strategies,” I likely would have landed at proportional reasoning. Of course, other curricular competencies will come into play, but they won’t be a focus of this unit. This raises questions about assessment. (More on assessment in an upcoming post.)

Note that “represent” is missing from my chosen curricular competencies. Why is that? My informed decision? Professional autonomy for the win? Or my blindspot? A teacher who sees proportional reasoning as “cross-multiply and divide,” who is unfamiliar with bar models, or double number lines, or ratio tables, or who sees graphs as belonging to a separate and disconnected linear relations chapter wouldn’t think of connecting this content to “represent.” Making connections between these representations is an important part of making sense of proportional reasoning. Will this build-a-standard approach mean missed learning opportunities for students? This speaks to the importance of collaboration, coaching, and curriculum, er, I mean quality learning resources.

In early talks, having these three elements fit on one page was seen as a crucial design feature. Imagine an elementary school teacher being able to view–all at once!–the standards for nine different subjects, spread out across her desk. As a consequence, the learning standards are brief. Some embraced the openness; others railed at the vagueness. In some circles, previous prescribed learning outcomes are described using the pejorative “checklist”; in others, there is a clamouring for “limiting examples.” (Math teachers, compare these content standards with similar Common Core content standards.)

I wonder if the KDU model oversimplifies things. If you believe that there is a difference between to know and to understand, then you probably want your students to understand ratios, rates, proportions, and percent. For a “concept-based” curriculum, it’s light on concepts. Under content, a (check)list of topics. To that end, I fleshed out each of the three elements (below). But I have the standards I have, not the standards I wish I had. (Free advice if you give this a try: don’t lose the that in that stem below.)



I wonder if the KDU model overcomplicates things. Again, U is for what students will understand. But “understanding” is one of the headers within the D, what students will do.

Despite this, I have found the KDU model to be helpful. In particular, it’s been helpful when discussing what it means to do mathematics. The math verbs that we’re talking about are visualize, model, justify, problem-solve, etc., not factor, graph, simplify, or solveforx. Similar discussions take place around doing science (scientific inquiry) and social studies (historical thinking).

More broadly, the model has been helpful in making sense of the framework of our new curriculum, or standards. It’s a useful exercise to have to think about specific combinations–far more useful than:

Q: “Which competencies did we engage in?”
A: “All of ’em!”

We’re still some distance from “the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms” but it isn’t difficult to imagine learning experiences in which this specific combination of the three elements come together.