MARILYN
BURNS
MATH PODCASTS

Marilyn Burns: But so much has really happened where I have really worked hard to find the fewest number of questions I can ask that would give me the most information. And so I’ve got it down where I can sit with a kid for 15 minutes tops and ask him a dozen questions and learn so much if I learn to listen. But if there’s something happened, recently I was crosstalk looking through some crosstalk.

Kyle Pearce: In this episode, we speak with the great Marilyn Burns. Marilyn is one of today’s most highly respected mathematics educators. Over the course of more than 55 years, Marilyn has taught children, led professional development sessions, spoke at conferences, contributed to professional journals, written more than a dozen books for children, and created more than 20 professional development resources for teachers and administrators.

Jon Orr: Stick with us in this interview and you’ll learn what assessment really means and how to assess for student learning, how you can integrate one-on-one interviews into your math program and still teach that curriculum, what to ask when assessing your students in one-on-one interviews, and you’ll learn how to be compassionate and curious about how students think and reason.

Kyle Pearce: Let’s do this. Welcome to the making Math Moments that Matter podcast, I’m Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I’m John Orr. We are from makemathmoments.com and together.

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity.

Jon Orr: You’ll sense making.

Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves. Welcome my friends to another awesome interview with the very, very pleasant Marilyn Burns. I am so, so excited to dive into this conversation and learn a little bit about one-on-one interviews and really her journey and what sort of landed her in that place that she is in now.

Jon Orr: We’ve learned so much from Marilyn over the years, and super excited to have her on the podcast so that you can also benefit from some of that learning. So we’re not going to waste any more time. Let’s jump right into the conversation with Marilyn.

Kyle Pearce: Hey, hey there, Marilyn. Thanks for joining us here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. It is been or it has been a long time coming. We’ve kind of gone back and forth over the past little while. You were busy for quite some time. We got kind of busy and really having a hard time with our scheduling. And then finally, we’ve managed to connect before you head out east. Marilyn, how are you doing and where are you currently before you’re off to take a little vacation for summer?

Marilyn Burns: Well, right now I’m sitting at home in Sausalito, California. Actually, I’ve been in the same house for 50 years and I taught school here in this town in the ’60s, so I’ve been around here a long time. But my husband and I spend our summers east Upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains on the lake where we drink the water out of the lake where I can swim every morning and I don’t have to deal with our California drought, which is pretty serious now.

Jon Orr: Love it. And I hope to stay in my house just as long. I love that area, Marilyn. I’m from the Kingston area, which is kind of, I guess, somewhat kind of across the border around up in that area. So Kingston, Ontario. Marilyn, tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your math journey? What inspired you to get into this mathematics education field?

Marilyn Burns: I sort of got into it, not by making the choice, more the choice was made for me. Not the math part, but to become a teacher. Because when I went to school, there weren’t very many paths open for young women. You became a nurse, a teacher, or if you weren’t going to college, you could become a secretary. So I went off to college and my mother said to me, “Become a teacher, you’ll always have something to fall back on if you have to work for a living.” And of course I knew I had to work for a living. But it’s interesting because my grandmother pulled me aside and said, “You should become an accountant like your father.” So I was like going to please everybody. So I said to my mom, “No problem. I’ll be a teacher.” I said to my grandmother, “I’m going to be a math teacher.” And that sounded like it was related to accounting, what did I know? And so I went to school and became a teacher, a secondary math teacher.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, that’s fantastic. What a cool story. I know for me when I think back, it’s interesting because I was always interested in organization, and actually I see that a lot in my daughter now. My daughter’s always like in a room, setting up the office and her classroom and all of those things. But it’s interesting because as young children too, and I don’t know if you can relate to this or not, but it seems like when you ask people what they wanted to be when they were younger, what they wanted to be when they grow up, but based when they were younger, oftentimes you get a lot of those same responses, right? You get what you know as a child. Like you know a teacher, you know a doctor, you might know a veterinarian. You might have heard someone say marine biologist once or twice. And for me it was, I wanted to be a bus driver.

And then between while class was going on, and this was when I was very young, between being a bus driver, I wanted to be a chef. So I guess I would just work like the lunch shift. And in my mind, that was just so cool. But again, this was before I knew what an accountant was or anything like that. So that is.

Marilyn Burns: Before there were taco trucks.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So now I wonder if you could do a taco truck and school bus driver at the same time. It’s the school bus taco truck, but.

Marilyn Burns: Yeah, that would be good. But it’s interesting. I didn’t resist this. I think if they had told me something like you had to be a nurse, to me, needles and blood weren’t something I could see myself doing, but I like school. I liked school supplies. I said, one of the benefits I thought of being a teacher would give access to all that paper and crosstalk, at that time, it was crayons. So I thought this was okay, I could do it. And I was a goodie two shoes in school, so school was a pleasant experience.

Jon Orr: Right. I was going to ask you a question, I’ll ask in a second, but you just said there about all the school supplies. It just reminds me of my daughter. She’s 11. And all she wants to do when school is over is just play school. She gets all the papers together and she’s grading people and she’s giving assessment and feedback, it’s quite a show.

Kyle Pearce: All the stuff that teachers hate actually doing, kids love to do, it’s crosstalk, right?

Jon Orr: She invites her friends over and they have to sit and they do activities together. Oh yeah. It’s after school for like an hour or more. It’s definitely something. Marilyn, I wanted to dig deeper here on your journey. Could you fill us in and especially our listeners here on what current role are you in the math field serving and then like, how did you get from teacher to that role.

Marilyn Burns: That’s an interesting question. I’m a big believer in the randomness of life. So there I became a secondary teacher and I was very fortunate because my undergraduate advisor, his name was Robert Davis. I went to Syracuse University, he shaped my whole life. He was one of the early people who got involved with NSF funded grants to help teachers. He was somebody who believed in kids reasoning, kids thinking, and he himself got involved with a project called the Madison Project in Syracuse, where he would go into classes of elementary kids. Maybe fourth, fifth grade was probably his sweet spot and he was passionate and curious about how kids thought, and he was passionate and curious about his students. So it was really a wonderful beginning into the field of becoming a teacher. He was probably deeply involved with cognitive science before it really became that well known.

And so when I became a teacher, a secondary math teacher, the only way I knew how to teach was what we called at that time, the discovery method, which was kind of like inquiry teaching. And that’s how we’re supposed to ask questions and listen, and ask more questions and listen more. So that was kind of the Genesis of what I saw as a teacher. But I think that we all teach the way we were taught in a certain way. So that was in contrast to what I had experienced in most of my classes, which was the teacher at the board, filling it up and me dutifully copying it down and making sense of it. So I was happily successful, but I somehow, these two things over the years had to reconcile. Learn to hold two completely contradictory notions simultaneously when I started focusing on the students and what they needed and how I could help them.

So it’s been as strange as any journey is a strange journey. So I taught was then junior high school, middle school math, eighth graders, when I moved to California. And I cut very curious about how they came to the point where they, so many of them seemed so utterly confused or disinterested. And I just went down to visit younger classrooms because the school where I was teaching then was a 5-8 school in a K–8 district. So I started kind of poking around with my friends who were teaching younger kids and got kind of hooked on it, got hooked on understanding why some kids were really good in math or felt they were good and other kids couldn’t get access to it. But I think the thing that helped me most is really bizarre because I majored in math. So I have a… my degree is in mathematics. I was lousy in college. I just memorized theorems-

Jon Orr: Me too.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, me too.

Marilyn Burns: … crosstalk. It was horrible. Why I stuck with it, I have no idea, but I really didn’t like writing papers. So I say, huh, just do the problems. I mean, here I spend my waking hours writing, but I know what it feels like to sit in a math class and feel completely stupid. And I said, okay, I’m going to be a teacher where none of my students will feel stupid. That was an oath I took. And so when all these little things come together in some ways, okay. How am I going to do that? What do I need to learn? So I’m a lousy mathematician. There’s no doubt about that.

Kyle Pearce: It’s interesting to me, there’s so many questions I was trying to jot down. So I remember to ask them and I want to make sure that we don’t miss some of these earlier pieces. One that pops in my mind right away. So first off, you’ve sort of shared a bit of a memory from your own experience in your post-secondary journey. And John and I are kind of giggling because we reference this a lot on the podcast about how through K to 12. Yeah, maybe in grade 11 and 12, things got a little bit trickier, but not tricky enough where I had to really put a ton of effort in, but I didn’t realize I was memorizing at the time. And then when I got into university, boom, I hit that wall and I can so relate to your experience. I’m wondering, can we go back to, you had mentioned about how, as teachers, as educators, it’s very common for us to obviously teach the way we were taught or at least have that influence us in some way.

And for some people that’s the way and that’s the way they stick to, and then for others, they tend to maybe start there and then hopefully maybe start to transition or transform what it means to learn and understand mathematics if they have that opportunity to sort of explore and think about how students think. My question to you is what would be your math moment that you remember from your schooling and maybe it is that university experience or college experience. But when you were younger, is there a moment that sort of pops into your mind when we say math class that makes you say this is my moment and did it shape you to kind of help you get to where you are today?

Marilyn Burns: Well, if I think before I got to college, the math was really easy for me. If I memorized, I also understood because you had to really reason to, to get through geometry and trigonometry. And when I went to school, calculus was not offered in high school. So it really all made sense to me. And that was kind of a badge of honor that if you were good in math, that was a high status thing. And I think that in that way I was kind of like felt fortunate that the math came so easily to me. When I got to the university, it was this complete shock to me, when I think back on it, on how all of that confidence and ability pretty much was wiped out so quickly, I was almost fascinated by it. So all of the things that I had learned that all seemed so logical and it came up to me when my granddaughter was taking Algebra II about… This was a while ago because she just graduated from college this past weekend.

And it was like, it was a whole different course. What was that? It was almost like it was more analytic geometry and she’s worked with the graph and calculator and I’m thinking, boy, would I have been successful? She worked hard at it. But there was nothing in high school math that was at all challenging for me. It all was ho hum, this is easy. Math must be easy. I must be good at it.

Jon Orr: I’m just curious about the math that you took in high school, you said it’s different now-

Marilyn Burns: Yes. This was.

Jon Orr: … but I’m wondering, was it more like arithmetic? Like it was like, we just do everything, sometimes we call these bare bones problems or just naked problems.

Marilyn Burns: Yeah. Well, ninth grade was algebra. So you did all those train problems and mixture problems and you mushed around. I don’t even know if we did simultaneous equations in ninth grade algebra. It was a lot of word problems. 10th grade was geometry, which is basically a two column proof course. And then the sequence then was, if I remember correctly, trigonometry, solid geometry and there must have been something else in there. But they were all easily accessible. They were just all pretty logical things to do. The problems sets weren’t difficult and if you were neat and orderly and did your homework, you just sort of cruise through. And when I think back on it, my first semester at Syracuse University, I took analytic geometry, and that was… I don’t think I knew what a function was. I don’t think I really had any idea of a concept of a function until way later than I needed to have that idea.

And when I mentioned my undergraduate advisor, teaching fourth and fifth graders, he was doing a lot of work with them on linear functions and learning how to graph and how you made tables. And there was a whole lot of thinking around algebraic ideas at that age and it was the first time I said, oh my gosh, that’s a function. That’s what it’s about. I never even had, how did I miss the idea of limits? It was just like, it just wasn’t of anything that I remember. I was just so focused on let me get through these classes. And the easiest class for me in college was differential equations, because you really don’t have to understand anything. You just push those equations around. So I remember signing up for modern algebra thinking, oh I loved algebra, I was really good in algebra. Boy, I never seen a matrix before.

And when I think back on it, it was probably a triumph of sticktuitiveness without a lot of intelligence behind it. I think I should have been an engineer or something where inaudible with anything. I don’t know. But then again, look where it got me. It got me to the point where I’m kind, I’m generous, I’m curious about math. I no longer feel bad that I don’t understand a lot of math. If I hang out with friends who know a lot more math than I do, we all know what to do. You just look in your wallet or you look in your purse or you just go up and get a glass of water.

I mean, I know how to protect myself from being humiliated, but I know what that feels like. This is a thought I had. When I’m reading in a book, I often come across a word I don’t know. I mean I shockingly often. And unless I’m on my Kindle, I don’t look it up. I just keep reading and I’m doing just fine. I get the gist of it. It doesn’t work that way in math, as soon as there’s one thing that I didn’t get, it’s like falling off the ladder, and I got to start from the beginning and are to go up step by step to understand the logic of something or how something is being proved.

And sometimes I can’t even find the ladder. That’s what I think happens to kids. So it’s just my own experience has served me very, very well. And I seem to have come out intact in terms of the emotional impact of it but I know that for a lot of kids is feeling that deficit is horrifying and humiliating. It was humiliating in one way, but I just was still woke enough not to let it show.

Jon Orr: Right. I really appreciate the idea that actually think about like two of these ideas you kind of, we could blend together here. It’s like you talked about this oath of not allowing kids to feel that way in math class. And when you teach, so it’s like, you can take in these memories and said, hey, this is what I need to do. And I think a lot of us do that. It’s like when we become teachers, it’s like, I’m not going to do that. Or I am going to do that. And it’s definitely from our own personal experience, so where we shape who we are as teachers. And then you also have this experience where you think back to your school, you were fine in school. You weren’t in high school, that person who felt that embarrassment.

And I’m wondering like, if you think about your teaching and thinking about like teaching kids who were like you in high school. What did you learn when you went the aha, I’ve got to teach this way, but then also how did you address those kids who were like you in high school, who felt really confident in what they were doing?

Marilyn Burns: I think what helped me was leaving the secondary math world and coming to the elementary world. Okay, when I was teaching algebra, you have a curriculum you got to get through. I grew up in New York State, we had the New York State Regents. These kids are going to take the Regents and like I did, and I was teaching mat, I wasn’t teaching students. That came to me one day, I’m teaching math and like, it’s like the car salesman says I sold it, they just didn’t buy it. I mean like that would never fly, why is it flying in the classroom? So when you get down to work with younger kids, first of all, they aren’t so protective. I mean my 14 year old algebra students were really trying to be so cool and they were just not going to be open that the younger kids did burst into tears if they’re upset or they would giggle and it would be different.

So when I have kids who are eager, somehow I can deal with that spread more easily in the elementary grades because I’m not barreling my way through this course material. And I honestly think it was very freeing for me as a teacher. So every year after I stopped teaching middle school, I would actually adopt a class. And I remember adopting a second grade class where I had kids who couldn’t count by twos, who didn’t know that if we had a bunch of cubes, if I put them into groups of 10 or, and counted, and then I put the same group of cubes into twos and counted that you kept the same number. I mean, that was like, they just hadn’t figured that out yet, that was sort of mysterious. At the same time, in that same class, I’ll never forget this little boy, Andrew, came to me one day and said, I think there are more numbers less than 10 than more than 10.

That’s what I said, and how do you figure? He says, well, because some kids are fascinated with infinity, whatever they think that is. He says, there goes infinity both ways, but there’s more of the… There was 10 extra numbers between zero and 10. So it is smart, but he’s wrong.

Jon Orr: Yeah, I know.

Marilyn Burns: I mean, the question is, crosstalk, it was so interesting. I was at that time, teaching a workshop for elementary teacher told him about Andrew who said this and they say, oh, he’s really brilliant. I said, he is brilliant as most children are, but he’s wrong about this mathematically. And that was such an interesting discussion about there are infinite sets of different sizes, but this was not one of them. This is like, there were just as many numbers as there are even numbers or even numbers as there are natural numbers, it’s kind of hard to get your head around those kinds of things.
But with younger kids, I find it easier in a way to differentiate because they don’t have the baggage of saying, yeah, I know. Is it going to be on the test? Am I going to get through this course? Am I going to get the grade? So I would say to the kids, if anybody is interested in talking about Andrew’s idea about infinity, I’ll meet you in the corner, but the rest of you have plenty of work to do and you don’t have to join unless you’d like to. Can you imagine that happening in a high school class. I never stuck with high school teaching long enough to even imagine how that might work. But I give the kids some agency and give them some dignity with it so they can find something that is challenging, interesting to them, but they have to have access to it. Not all kids were going to have access to. Andrew’s interesting conjecture.

Kyle Pearce: I love how you’re articulating this difference as we move through the grades as we head into adolescence, right, and all of the other things that come along with it, beautiful, or maybe not so beautiful as it might be, right? The worrying about what other people think and worrying about the test, all of these things. So I can completely understand why you would be sort of wanting to head down and work with some of our younger learners. And I’m wondering, we’d love to dive into some of your most recent work around assessment and specifically around observations and conversations through one-on-one interview. So when I heard this, I thought it was really interesting because for so many years I thought assessment and evaluation were kind of two words like synonyms. They interchangeable, but when I learned that the word assessment meant or means to sit beside or was derived from that term to sit beside, it really, to me, puts a perspective how valuable a one-on-one interview could be, to better understand student thinking.
I’ve heard this throughout the conversation already, just this fascination, this curiosity about how students think and how they reason. I’m wondering for those who are listening and I’m wondering if you can, well, first maybe start with some of our primary and elementary teachers. And then I don’t know if you have some ideas on how we might leverage some of this work and bring it into the secondary classroom or what that might look like and sound like, but where does a teacher begin? And you sort of shared where your journey began heading and working with some classes and sitting with students, like how does someone get started in doing this? What would be some advice that you might offer to someone who’s thinking and saying, I feel like I’m doing a lot of the talking and I’m not doing a ton of observing or listening to my students. Where do they start? How do they begin this journey for many that might feel pretty scary or daunting, right, if they’ve never done it before, or haven’t done a whole lot of it before.

Marilyn Burns: Yes. And it’s interesting in terms of reading, because most teachers who are teaching the youngest kids, kindergarten, first, second grades do one on one interviews with kids. How would you know if a kid could read, unless you’d asked the kid to read and then how would you know, if they understood what they read, unless you said, well, what happened at the end of the story? Or what was this character like? Those are common protocols for teachers who teach the young kids, but that’s like, we do it in reading. Why did we never do it in math? And then what would I ask them in math? And that became really fascinating to me. What would I ask them where there would be an answer, yes but I would be more curious with how the student would explain how they got this answer rather than thinking, hoping, they would give me the way that I thought.

And so the surprises that have come up from sitting one on one with kids has been enormous and the intimacy that happens. So I’ve done these interviews with kids of all ages. I mean, I’ve done it with high school kids as well, because I’ve done it with adults. I mean, people who can… If I’m going to cook dinner, you’re going to answer a math question, that’s sort of the deal here. So, but so much has really happened where I have really worked hard to find the fewest number of questions I can ask that would give me the most information. And so I’ve got it down, where I can sit with a kid for 15 minutes tops and ask him a dozen questions and learn so much if I learned to listen. But something happened recently, I was actually looking through some kids’ work that were second graders where it was work. Because I’m working on a blog and there was a problem for like, rather than tell the whole story, the kid was adding 36 plus 25 and they had to solve the problem three different ways.

And the first time they did it this way, the second time the kid changed the problem from 36 plus 25 to 35 plus 26, I think it was unintentional, got the same answer. Well then I realized I had just, a year ago, interviewed a girl, and the problem I gave her to solve was 36 plus nine. And my thinking was, would she know to add 10? And then come back one, how would she solve that problem? She solved it by changing 36 plus nine. She switched the nine to six, just like this other kid didn’t. He said, oh I can do 39 plus six because one more is 40 and five is 45. Now that was intentional whereas the other kid just seemed to, I don’t know, just copy the numbers down wrong.

But now, if I think about it in terms of how we approach things, the higher levels of math, when can you switch digits when you’re adding? When can you not switch digits when you’re adding? Can you switch digits and get the same answer when you subtract? What about when you multiply? What about when you divide? What about with fractions? If I add one half plus one third and if I switch the three and the two, the commuter property is obvious, but what if I switched other numbers? If I was one half plus two fifths, could I switch the numerators? I mean, there’s so many things about this switcheroo that would be so interesting to consider. To me, it’s interesting because the math is accessible and it’s like, it’s kind of one of those things. So not only have I learned from these interviews, I’m astounded how long it had been in my teaching career when I didn’t even trust that I would learn something from the kids about how they thought and that that was really what is most important.

My granddaughter, I remember, calling me one time and she was working on how to complete the square in her algebra class. And I said to her, “You want to know how to do or do you want to know why?” That was what I always asked them? Because how stressed are you to get your homework done or do you really want to have an interesting conversation? And that’s the difference. So I’m not interested in the procedures without understanding. I’m interested in the question that’ll get a kid interested. How come when you multiply two even numbers, you get an even answer, but when you multiply two odd numbers you’re going to get an odd product, but if you multiply one of each, you always get an even product. I mean, that’s the question everybody can get into it because they can try it with little numbers, but the question is, it’s the thinking.

I wonder, I wonder. So I think that the math that I complain about not having learned very much did serve me so I can ask those kinds of questions and see the potential in those kind of questions. And now I’ve learned to put my tongue between my teeth, shut up and listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t give feedback. No praise. That was good. That was not good. Just, oh, tell me more. I just published a blog, which is based on an article written by a New York Times columnist David Brookstein talked about nine ways to have difficult conversations. And I was really thinking the difficulty that he want to listen with openheartedness, generosity and real curiosity so that I want to hold that kid’s eyes in mine and let the kid know I am listening to you because I really want to know how you think. I think that’s kind of delicious time for us both.

Jon Orr: It’s amazing. Think about what you’re learning when you ask those questions and think about the deep mathematics that you just outlined as some exam examples that you can bring into that conversation, just because you sat and listened to a student on how they thought. And I often think about a kid who would’ve switched the numbers and how that brought up such an interesting conversation about do they understand what they’re doing, because if you didn’t listen to what they were doing or how they were thinking, and you asked them to just write it down on paper and you saw that, and a lot of teachers might do this and then some might inquire and go over and talk to them if they weren’t sitting beside them. But if you didn’t do those things, you might see that they wrote it down wrong.

And then all of a sudden they’ve graded it wrong. And think of the feedback that student now has. It’s like, I didn’t do it right. That wasn’t correct thinking and it was some interesting thinking that needs to be explored. And I’m definitely always in awe of what you learn when you do listen to what your students have said. Because I was like that I was teaching mathematics. I wasn’t teaching kids until later in my career where I realized that I need to teach kids first and realize where they are to help them move further.

Marilyn Burns: There was another thought, because I think that I used to be that I would ask a question, and then if I said to a student, are you sure about that? If I asked a question, it was a hint the, oh, oh, what you said is inaudible. Instead of no matter what they say, you say like, how did you figure that out with real interest and openness and listen to the kids, so that you can ask that question, whether your answer is correct or incorrect. And that to me is a complete difference. Because I’ve learned on their written work, their right answers can mask confusion and wrong answers can hide real understanding. I’m not learning anything about how they think too often from the written work alone. I’ve got to find another way.

And it’s hard when a classroom, class discussions help, small group work helps, conferring with kids helps, but there’s nothing like it, sitting one on one and having a conversation about what I ever known. I’m constantly amazed. I’ve watched the videos that I’ve done so often I could lip sync them, and so, it’s still astonishing to me. I think kids come up with things I hadn’t thought about.

Jon Orr: I think listeners right now of this conversation are nodding their heads going, I know that I can learn so much from my students. And I think I’m going to play the logistics card here on what this looks like. Just for example, if you’re of some of the middle school grades or even younger, but also even older of what this could look like in a classroom, Marilyn, what have you seen teachers do to accomplish this? If this is like, we want to make sure we can do this, how do we get to every kid? That’s not obviously on a daily basis, but it might be like, is it on a week? What is your experience?

Kyle Pearce: And I’m wondering, is there like a training wheels version too? You start, you dip your toe in a little bit and you have a goal to kind of be doing this as often as possible, but is there some sort of get started tip or something like that you would say almost like a I wish I would’ve done this when I started this journey and I’m sure you learned a ton along the way.

Marilyn Burns: Right, instead of opening the page one of the book and starting to teach, I wish I had found out what the kids knew. crosstalk what a concept. So I work in a school as a volunteer and it’s been sort of my own personal playground to be able to go and to do this. So here’s what we do. So at the beginning of the year, here’s my message to kids, and I think at any grade level. We’re together in this class, I want us to be a community of caring, curious learners who are going to support each other, and I’ll do my best to be a guide as well as I can, learning from you as you can learn from me. That’s my feeling, I want this community. In order for me to do that and to do my job most effectively, I really want get to know each of you.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to teach you a bunch of games that I think are really interesting, and the games are all games that require logical reasoning. They’re interesting, they can be fun and we could talk about what those games are, but teachers have them. Because what I’m going to do is I’m going to teach you how to operate in my room independently on what I call the menu when you’ll be able to choose from this menu of things that I’d like you to be doing to keeping you meaningfully engaged. And then I’m going to pull you over one by one and have a special conversation so I can begin to learn who you are. So I just do it in the classroom. So I mean, we teach so many games, and you think about the game of pig, which you might be familiar with that, where you roll two dice and you keep rolling and adding up, whoever gets to a hundred, wins.

But if you roll a double, let’s say I can’t remember… If you roll a one, if a one comes up, you have that round’s bust, but if you roll a double one, snake eyes, you’re back to zero. So it’s got some probability in it, it’s got some mental math. It’s one of those kinds. It’s a genre, there are so many of these games and I probably have at least 50 in my back pocket that I could pull out. And the things have given me a chance and to work with kids so they know that they’re going to get their time with me. It’s so interesting because who wants to go next? Oh, take me take, and that’s very different from those ultra cool 14 year olds. They too want to do that. They do. Who doesn’t want to get the attention from somebody who’s not going to judge you, but is going to say, I’m really curious, I want to know what’s going on inside your head.
If I could open up your head and look inside, I wouldn’t have to do this, but I can’t. So we have to have a conversation. And mostly the conversation is you talking and me listening, because as a teacher, we talk a lot. So I just set it up as that way and how do teachers do their reading interviews they give the kids. We need to have silent reading. Well, I don’t want them to do silent worksheets. I want them to have a partner and play multiplication bingo. You pick the numbers on your bingo board and figure out what’s a good thing when you roll two dice? What’s going to come up most often for you to win bingo. I mean there’s all sorts of things that are appropriate for kids as to where they are. The other thing is, I know, years ago I developed this assessment of asking questions for the Gates Foundation and it’s no longer available.

It was free and it was a great project, but it really helped me learn what I need to do. So, listening to learn is what I think it’s all about and if you Google listening to learn, you can see on the website that I’ve been working on, what there is that’s available there. You can watch some of these videos. I mean, I find them just utterly, completely fascinating. I’ve been tweeting out a lot of bunch of these little video clips and it’s amazing. I tweeted out a video clip actually of two different kids solutions to adding 99 plus 99 plus five. And it was so fascinating that there was over a hundred thousand impressions for this one tweet. People were just so taken by listening to the kids, thinking ways they wouldn’t have had to think themselves.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And as you’re talking and reflecting on how students continue to surprise us, I feel like that is one of the elements that really started to get me excited about teaching mathematics, again, was when I started listening and asking students more questions and even going back to earlier, when you had said all the teachers, I think, we get caught in this mode of what’s the answer to this? When a student says the answer, okay, great. What’s the answer to, okay, great. Okay. Great. Why for this one? And then students are like, oh-oh, I know I got that wrong and they start guessing. But when we ask students, like when everything we do in math class is sort of this game of convince me or game of, hey, how could you prove this to another person in the class?

And when we get students talking and we’re observing all of the interesting ways that students think and the way that they’re perceiving different situations, it really gets me excited. And I hope people who are listening are getting excited as well. And also when we’re talking about getting started with how do we create the space to listen and observe our students more? I think you nailed it, is like, you’ve got to make the time. You have to figure out, even if it means starting small, but let’s say it’s 15 minutes of every math block and it’s not just the same group of students. It has to be all students having an opportunity to tell you what they know and to be able to listen to what they know. And then of course, course, while students are working on a problem or whatever it might be, where of course walking around the room and listening and observing maybe in larger groups, but there’s so much value here.

I’m going to make sure that we dig up that tweet from your Twitter profile. So we will definitely include that in the show notes. I’m looking at the time and I’m saying, wow, we have blown through a good 40 minutes here already. And we had so much more, we wanted to ask, but we want to make sure that we respect you for your time and I’m wondering, if there was one thing, if there’s one takeaway that you hope that the Math Moment Maker audience can take with them from this conversation, what would that be? That one thing for them to reflect on and maybe put into practice?

Marilyn Burns: Well, that’s a good question. I think that maybe it would be something like I know correct answers are important. I worry that our math teaching is way too much answer driven. So it’s correct answers are important, but they’re only the starting place. It’s how kids reason. So my lifelong goal is to change reading, writing, rhythmic, to reading, writing, and reasoning. And what does it take to do that in the classroom? It takes asking and listening and making that I have to work hard to make that an integral part of my teaching practice.

Kyle Pearce: That’s awesome stuff. Those are big takeaways for everyone to walk away from this episode is how can we bring those things into our practice? I think that I know I have learned a lot just from this conversation and reflected on my practice as a high school math teacher. I want to thank you for joining us. Before we go, Marilyn, where can our Math Moment Makers learn more about your work or reach out to you?

Marilyn Burns: Well, one of the projects that I took on and maybe COVID helped, because you’re not going anywhere, I launched my own website, just… I launched it on my birthday in April. So that was like my birthday present to myself and it’s called M. Burns Math. And there, I’ve got blogs I’ve been writing for a long time. Well, when we get through at this podcast, it’ll be wonderful to be able to share it on my own website. So all the books articles, but last, you get to see a lot of these videos that I’ve been actually interviewing kids that may be of interest, but it’s kind of where I can post anything that comes to mind. And so, that’s been the most exciting birthday president I’ve ever given myself, I think.

Jon Orr: Awesome is that Marilyn, at marilynburnsmath.com.

Marilyn Burns: Yes. That’s been a whole nother journey. Technology is a challenge and I had such wonderful help to launch a site that made sense to me that I think I hope will be easy to navigate. So it’s marilynburnsmath. Since 2015, I’ve written 62 blogs and I’m thinking, whoa, that’s a lot of blogs.

Kyle Pearce: That is awesome. That is fantastic. I’m sure the math moment maker community is going gobble up all of that reading. And again, just reiterating what John had mentioned, Marilyn’s been awesome to be able to catch up with you and to do some learning. I know how passionate you are about sitting and listening and really understanding how students think. We talk about it so much on the podcast. Until we get that information, we don’t know what our next move is or how we can help students along that journey. So thank you so much for giving us some new ideas and strategies on how we can better serve those students in our classroom. I’m hoping you enjoy and fantastic evening and.

Marilyn Burns: Yes. And thank you so much for your interest. This has been really a pleasure.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, no problem at all. We are so happy to have you. Enjoy your trip out east and we will be in touch real soon. As always both John and I learned so much from our Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast guest. But remember, in order to ensure we hang onto this new learning so it do, doesn’t wash away like footprints in the sand, we must reflect on what we’ve learned. An excellent way is to write it down. And how John and I actually do our writing and reflecting is by creating the show notes page. We have to actually craft a summary to share with you the Math Moment Maker Community. So what are you going to do in order to reflect and allow yourself to take some action on something you’ve learned here today?

Jon Orr: Yeah. And a great way to hold yourself accountable other than write it down is share it with someone. Share it with your partner, share it with a colleague, share it with someone that you just meet at the beach or share it in the Math Moment Maker Community over on our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12 or hey, hit us up on Twitter or Instagram at Make Math Moments is our handle there.

Kyle Pearce: Yes. And make sure you don’t miss out on any new episodes as they come out each week. Go ahead and subscribe to your favorite podcast platform. The Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, we’re on every platform, and remember, we’ve got a new YouTube video coming out each week to help you with your teaching practice. So head on over, find Make Math Moments on YouTube and hit that subscribe button.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links to resources from this episode, plus complete transcripts to read from the web or download to take with you, head on over to makemathmoments.com/episode149. Again, that’s makemathmoments.com/episode149.

Kyle Pearce: Well, my Math Moment Maker friends, until next time I’m Kyle Pierce.

Jon Orr: And I’m Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us and a high five for you.

One Comment

  • Sue Jones says:

    Interesting coincidence: I just had to move offices and uncovered an assessment I made w/ stuff from the assessment I found online, and from Katherine Garnett’s ideas for prepping for learning times tables 😉 I used it w/ our college folks who didn’t test into college level, tho’ some tested into algebra… and sigh, with that group the leaping to algorithms happened oh, at 1000-3 as they literally air-traced the math problem. I can’t remember if it was befor or after I read Stigler et al’s article where they did interviews and analyzed questions from that population and noted the same thing: that math was memorizing, and some of ’em were better than others at it.

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