Why a @Desmos Activity?

This post is really more a process of me thinking something through than anything else. However, if I missed something, I’d like to hear about it, so I’m going ahead and publishing this.

It’s summer, so I’m revising my courses. I’ve been looking at a lot of resources, and this morning was devoted to Desmos Activities.

I’ve used Desmos activities in the past. I’ve made some Desmos activities. There are things for which they are excellent. Having students write the equations of graphs, for instance – it’s a lot easier to hand them a Desmos activity than print out or project a bunch of graphs. It reduces the work involved in checking their work and lets them spend more time on thinking. Those are good goals, and Desmos helps me achieve them.

I’ve got a list of Desmos activities that I want to incorporate into my class this year. I’m especially impressed with activities on how to graph. Polygraph and Marbleslides both encourage good thinking and they’re fun. That’s a rare combination, and it’s important. Really well done.

As I looked through the calculus activities this morning, I noticed a few worth incorporating. The Daylight Hours is a really nice extension that covers some worthwhile calculus while making a nice connection to the physical world. The Rate of Change of the Exponential Function could be good.

But with many activities, I found myself thinking, “Why would I use this instead of what I’ve been doing?” Take the Functions Defined by Integrals activity. (You can see it here.) I could have every student pull up their laptop and work through the activity, and it would be fine. It’s a good activity. Or I could do what I normally do: throw a graph onto the board, ask students to find the area between x = 2 and a bunch of other x values, then talk about how what we really have here is a function. That would be fine, too.

The activity has students talking to their neighbors and responding to other ideas. But I can do that at the board by giving them a question and two minutes to talk to their neighbors before calling them back for a class discussion.

The activity uses different colors to emphasize the difference between positive and negative area. I can do that on the board.

The activity has students estimate. I can do that at the board.

The activity has some good questions that I hadn’t thought of. I could ask them at the board.

The activity has students figure out the notation on their own. I could have them do that on paper silently, then compare with a neighbor, then talk as a class.

The activity has students collect data about what the area is. This decreases the calculation burden and frees them up to do more thinking…but this topic falls at a time of the year where I want my kids to get some more practice with calculating areas. (Whether or not you agree with that as a good instructional goal is fine; I don’t even know if I agree. It’ll be on the AP exam, so we’re practicing it.) So while in general that’s a good goal, I’m not sure it’s a goal that I want to pursue.

The activity also draws in the graph of the function defined by in an integral, which is nice. That stands out to me as one of the nicest moments of the activity, actually. But…I could do that at the board. I could even have the kids use the data we’ve collected to sketch what they think the graph of the function will look like, which raises the cognitive level of the task. Although now that Desmos has a sketch feature, they could incorporate that into their activity.

The activity lets me see what every student has written in response. That’s nice, and something that’s hard to do in a classroom. That’s probably the biggest advantage of doing an activity – I can see everyone’s response instead of whatever percentage my teacher ears catch. But…I only have about 12 students in my class. I can hear most of what they say, and I can tell from their body language when I need to wander over and be closer to them.

The downside is that I’ll have students write “I don’t know” and move on. Yes, I can see the “I don’t knows” on the dashboard, but if my eyes are on my screen, then they aren’t on my students. That means I’ll miss the facial cues and body language that tells me how they feel about this.

The other downside is that it’s digital. My students spend a lot of time staring at screens. I don’t want to add to that time unless it accomplishes something I can’t easily do another way. Also, my students often lack the discipline to stay on the screen I want them to. As soon as I ask them to open up Desmos, I know that Twitter, Instagram, the physics textbook, or email will also be opened. So the Desmos activity really has to be special to make it worth those distractions.

There’s a lot of buzz around Desmos. And don’t get me wrong, I really like Desmos. We use it probably once a week in my precal class because it is so. much. better. than a TI-84. I am not in any way trying to bash Desmos.

But I’m not yet sold on the activities. I definitely like that they’re available. I have and will use them in class. There are other times where I’ll look at them and modify my non-digital lesson, like this one caused me to do. Seeing the thinking that the Desmos activities try to provoke, especially the ones written by the Desmos Teaching Faculty, challenges and improves my teaching. I love that there’s a library of things I can look at. Even if I don’t use them as is, they’re still useful.

Why am I writing all this? To criticize Desmos? No! Emphatically no! Like I said at the beginning, I want to do more Desmos activities this year! I’m writing this as a reminder to myself.

I’ve noticed a tendency in my thinking to want to scrap what I’ve spent the last few years building and replace it almost exclusively with tons of Desmos Activities and 3-Acts and Underground Mathematics questions and those sorts of things.

All these things are tools. Desmos is a tool. A useful tool, a powerful tool, a helpful tool. Maybe it’s a nail gun. There are times where a nail gun really is the best tool for the job. But sometimes screws work just as well as nails, and I can use the drill I’m comfortable with – with some improved techniques by watching the nail gun – instead of switching.

So, while I’m revising my curriculum this year, I need to remember not to go overboard. Some of my lessons need to go. Some of them need to be tweaked. And some of them are good as is.

Unless, of course, there’s some major upside to this activity that I’m missing. That’s entirely possible, and if I missed something, I’d really like to know. Desmos guys? Will you let me know what I missed?

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2 thoughts on “Why a @Desmos Activity?

  1. Hi H.L., Dan here from Desmos. Thanks for letting us all in on your thought process about Desmos activities, and in a bigger way, your thought process about how you spend your class’s time and attention.

    I’m pretty sure that how a teacher spends her finite class time is one of the most important, and personal, decisions she’ll make. I’m sure you’ve made the right call with yours. You’ve evaluated the costs of using our activities versus their benefits. The costs are too high and the benefits aren’t high enough.

    Over on our side, we’re going to keep plugging away, adding features to our Activity Builder. At some point, we’ll invite you to re-run that cost-benefit analysis and let us know how we stack up then.

    Like

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