Cracking Eggs – Making Messes in Math Class
Yesterday, as I was cleaning up nail polish off the wall, I wondered – as I often do – if I was in a secret Mr. Clean Eraser commercial. I spend a lot of time cleaning and you would too if you had three kids ages 6, 4, and 3. I’ve come to the conclusion that if making messes translates to success in life, my husband and I will retire at the ripe age of 40 on a tropical island.
Which brings me to eggs. My 4 year old daughter is an early bird and it has become her recent obsession to participate in cooking breakfast with me, particularly to crack eggs. Are we making cereal? How about I crack an egg? Toast? How about with an eggy on top? Peanut butter with apples? Should we put a “circle” egg on top? It’s official, this girl wants to crack eggs.
My immediate reaction was obvious. NO! Definitively, I never ever EVER want you near an egg. No thank you. Here. Let me crack the egg for you into a bowl. Then, you take this bowl and pour it into another bowl I’m mixing in. The look on her face said it all. Disappointment. One morning I got to thinking, why don’t I want her to crack an egg? And, it came to me. The mess. At all costs, I wanted to avoid the shells, the soupy yolk and egg white smooshed in her little hands, on my counter, and on my floor. And I wanted to avoid the wasted time. Even if I didn’t care about the n-1 eggs, I’d lose time in my busy morning making breakfast.
That’s when my daughter served me some wisdom. She asked, “When am I going to learn how to crack eggs my very own self?”. How could she ever learn to crack an egg properly if I robbed her of every single opportunity to try it herself? I mean, how many eggs did I break before I “mastered” it? Carefully removing slippery egg shell fragments from batter is a skill and me, well I’ve gotten lots of practice. If I remove all of the difficult parts of cracking an egg for my daughter and all she ever does is see me do it, will she learn how to crack an egg?
Back in the math classroom, I realized that this is a common phenomenon. When a challenging topic approaches in your unit, you might feel anxious thinking about the impending struggles. This concept is complicated! Kids are going to feel uncomfortable and they’re going to give up. It’s just too hard. The students need me to help them. I’ll just walk them through all the hard parts and they can finish it up at the end. But I wonder, how much do they really learn from watching the problem solving? From observing someone else reason through the obstacles? Are we not robbing students of richer learning by avoiding a mess?
So, I gave my daughter an egg. True story….she made a mess. Like, somehow she managed to explode the yolk from the inside using the grip of Wonder Woman and the scientific wonder of, “I wonder if I squeeze it…” I cleaned it up. Stayed calm. Gave her another egg. And MAGIC. She cracked it. Her hands were covered in egg white and there were egg shells everywhere in the bowl, but she improved. She learned. This summer we repeated this process over and over again. Today, my 4 year old cracks eggs like a professional chef. She is an old hat at it and frankly, is bored by the whole process now. She really only cracks eggs because I am so damn proud every time she does it. And, a few weeks ago my 3 year old joined her on the step stool and as if they knew I was planning a blogpost about it, my daughter taught my son how to crack an egg.
Which brings me back to the math classroom. I wonder if, as math teachers, we can all join in reflection about what messes we have been avoiding in distinct lessons. Is the reason students fall below our expectations because we have not set them up to experience the failure and challenge that a “mess” presents? Are students poor problem solvers because we’ve never given them authentic problems to solve? And if a student makes a mistake the first time, does that mean they will never understand or reach mastery? How many times did you fail at cracking an egg before you truly understood the nuances and delicate nature of an egg? And even if you met “mastery” of cracking an egg, can you make a delicious meal and still have “messed up” when you cracked the egg?
Messes get a bad reputation. From experience, I’m sure it has something to do with the ease at which they are created and the inverse exponential time period it takes to clean them up. Perhaps it’s time to think about how a mess with purpose can produce rich learning.
Not every lesson needs to produce a mess. But if we never provide opportunities for students to truly puzzle and attempt something challenging, what learning are we robbing them of?
Consider. What if you engaged in a problem that had no answer? What if you started planning the lesson wondering how much they might learn rather than how many students might not “get it”? What if we took some time to value the divergent solution paths instead of the “right answer”?
Here is what I know:
- Mr. Clean Magic Erasers really are magic. Thank you weird smooshy white sponge that gets all stains out of all things.
- When we remove obstacles from difficult content, we remove learning. Following steps may lead to memorization, but it rarely leads to conceptual understanding.
- Creating opportunities for students to make a mess takes bravery.
My Math Unicorn Call to Action is:
Let your students make a mess this week. Don’t avoid the hard topic. Take on that wordy application problem. Open the investigation door and the let the warm wind blow in. A mess is like a roller coaster. You can choose to scream the whole time or you let yourself sway with the ebb and flow of learning and emerging ideas and see where you land (hopefully on the ground safely!). BE brave and see what happens when you let your students do something you might not have ever thought they could do. Spoiler alert: Your kids will surprise you.
Aly Martinez is a math teacher and induction mentor. She has a thousand children, loves donuts and math, and will always accept chocolate if you offer it. She believes she will sleep through the night one day again soon and is an avid fan of coffee, legos, and her induction candidates.