Mr Barton’s Second Book

It has been now just two years since I reviewed Mr Barton’s stellar first book. I say “just,” in part because the last three weeks during this pandemic have felt like five years, and in part because Barton packs so much into his second book, it is a little surprising he did it in just two years.

The central theme of Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain is using and constructing ‘intelligent’ sequences of mathematics exercises, “providing opportunities to think mathematically.” The intelligence behind these sequences is the way we order and arrange them, allowing for comparison (reflection) between two or more exercises, the anticipation of what the answer or solution method will be (expectation) based on what the previous answer or solution method was, determination of the answer (check), and then an explanation of the connection between the exercises (explain).

Consider, for example, the sequence at left, from early in the book. During reflect, for the first pair of exercises, I can notice that the lower and upper bounds have stayed the same, and the second number line has minor ticks for every second minor tick of the first number line. I can also notice that the sought-after decimal value is at the same location on both number lines. This noticing can lead me to expect that since I identified the missing value for the first number line as 2.6, my answer should be the same for the second number line. It’s possible, though, that I won’t come up with an expectation. In the check phase, I fill in the values for the equal intervals on the second number line, coming up with the value for the question mark. Finally, when I explain, I either have a chance to talk about my earlier expectation and explain why I was off or why my expectation was correct or, if I couldn’t formulate an expectation, I can explain why the question-marked values are the same even though the tick marks are different.

As I move through the sequence, there are really interesting thoughts to have.

  • Why did the question-marked values line up when moving from 10 to 5 equal intervals (between Questions 1 and 2) but not when moving from 5 to 4 equal intervals (between Questions 3 and 4)?
  • Why does “lining up” fail me in Questions 4, 5, and 6 when it worked between Questions 1 and 2?
  • I can’t rely on inspection every time to figure out the intervals. Is there something I can do to make that task simpler?
  • Is the question-marked value in Question 9 just the question-marked value in Question 8, divided by 10?
  • Can I extend my interval calculator method to decimals?

If this were the entire book, that would be enough for me, to be honest. But Mr Barton spends an exemplary amount of effort addressing possible questions and misconceptions about such sequences (the FAQ chapter is excellent) and explaining how these sequences can both fit into more extensive learning episodes and can function in different ways from practice. All the while, the sequences remain the stars of the show.

I highly recommend (again) Mr Barton’s book, especially to math teachers. He outlines in brilliant detail how you can turn a set of boring exercises into a powerful method for soliciting students’ mathematical thinking. No revolution required.

Choice Quotes

Below are just a few snips from the book that I added to my notebook while reading. These are not necessarily reflective of the entire argument. But after a long day of educhatter, which more often than not reads like an ancient scroll from some monist cult, it is comforting to read these thoughts and know that there is still a place for practical, technical, dispassionate thinking about teaching and learning in the 21st century—a place for waging the cerebral battle, rather than constantly leading with our chin or our hearts.

Teaching a method in isolation and practising it in isolation is important to develop confidence and competence with that method, and indeed, students can get pretty good pretty quickly. But if we do not then challenge them to decide when they should use that method – and crucially when they should not – we deny them the opportunity to identify the strategy needed to solve the problem.

There are two main arguments in favour of teaching a particular method before delving into why it works.

The path to flexible knowledge The key point that Willingham makes is that acquiring inflexible knowledge is a necessary step on the path to developing flexible knowledge. There is no short cut. The ‘why’ is conceptual and abstract. We understand concepts through examples. The ‘how’ generates our students’ experience of examples. In other words, often we have to do things several times to appreciate exactly how and why they work.

Motivation As Garon-Carrier et al. (2015) conclude, motivation is likely to be built on a foundation of success, and not the other way around.

The mistake I made for much of my career was trying to fast track my students to this [problem solving] stage. This was partly due to my obsession with differentiation – heaven forbid a child should be in their comfort zone for more than a few seconds – but also based on my belief that problem solving offered some sort of incredible 2-for-1 deal. I thought it would enable my students to practice the basics, whilst at the same time allowing them to develop that magic problem solving skill.

I will again quote John Mason: “It is the ways of thinking that are rich, not the task itself.”

Entia Successiva

The term ‘entia successiva’ means ‘successive entities.’ And, as you may guess, it is a term one might come across in a philosophy class, in particular when discussing metaphysical questions about personhood. For instance, is a person a single thing throughout its entire life or a succession of different things—an ‘ens successivum’? Though there is no right answer to this question, becoming familiar with the latter perspective can, I think, help people to be more skeptical and knowledgeable consumers of education research.

Richard Taylor provides an example of a symphony (in here) that is, depending on your perspective, both a successive and a permanent entity:

Let us imagine [a symphony orchestra] and give it a name—say, the Boston Symphony. One might write a history of this orchestra, beginning with its birth one hundred years ago, chronicling its many tours and triumphs and the fame of some of its musical directors, and so on. But are we talking about one orchestra?

In one sense we are, but in another sense we are not. The orchestra persists through time, is incorporated, receives gifts and funding, holds property, has a bank account, returns always to the same city, and rehearses, year in and year out, in the same hall. Yet its membership constantly changes, so that no member of fifty years ago is still a member today. So in that sense it is an entirely different orchestra. We are in this sense not talking about one orchestra, but many. There is a succession of orchestras going under the same name. Each, in [Roderick] Chisholm’s apt phrase, does duty for what we are calling the Boston Symphony.

The Boston Symphony is thus an ens successivum.

People are entia successiva, too. Or, at least their bodies are. Just about every cell in your body has been replaced from only 10 years ago. So, if you’re a 40-year-old Boston Symphony like me, almost all of your musicians and directors have been swapped out from when you were a 30-year-old symphony. People still call you the Boston Symphony of course (because you still are), but an almost entirely different set of parts is doing duty for “you” under the banner of this name. You are, in a sense, an almost completely different person—one who is, incidentally, made up of at least as many bacterial cells as human ones.

What’s worse (if you think of the above as bad news), the fact of evolution by natural selection tells us that humanity itself is an ens successivum. If you could line up your ancestors—your mother or father, his or her mother or father, and so on—it would be a very short trip down this line before you reached a person with whom you could not communicate at all, save through gestures. Between 30 and 40 people in would be a person who had almost no real knowledge about the physical universe. And there’s a good chance that perhaps the four thousandth person in your row of ancestors would not even be human.

The ‘Successive’ Perspective

Needless to say, seeing people as entia successiva does not come naturally to anyone. Nor should it, ever. We couldn’t go about out our daily lives seeing things this way. But the general invisibility of this ‘successiveness’ is not due to its only being operational at the very macro or very micro levels. It can be seen at the psychological level too. Trouble is, our brains are so good at constructing singular narratives out of even absolute gibberish, we sometimes have to place people in unnatural or extreme situations to get a good look at how much we can delude ourselves.

An Air Force doctor’s experiences investigating the blackouts of pilots in centrifuge training provides a nice example (from here). It’s definitely worth quoting at length:

Over time, he has found striking similarities to the same sorts of things reported by patients who lost consciousness on operating tables, in car crashes, and after returning from other nonbreathing states. The tunnel, the white light, friends and family coming to greet you, memories zooming around—the pilots experienced all of this. In addition, the centrifuge was pretty good at creating out-of-body experiences. Pilots would float over themselves, or hover nearby, looking on as their heads lurched and waggled about . . . the near-death and out-of-body phenomena are both actually the subjective experience of a brain owner watching as his brain tries desperately to figure out what is happening and to orient itself amid its systems going haywire due to oxygen deprivation. Without the ability to map out its borders, the brain often places consciousness outside the head, in a field, swimming in a lake, fighting a dragon—whatever it can connect together as the walls crumble. What the deoxygenated pilots don’t experience is a smeared mess of random images and thoughts. Even as the brain is dying, it refuses to stop generating a narrative . . . Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat.

You’ll note, I hope, that not only does the report above disclose how our very mental lives are entia successiva—thoughts and emotions that arise and pass away—but the report assumes this perspective in its own narrative. That’s because the report is written from a scientific point of view. And from that vantage point, people are assumed (correctly) to have parts that “do duty” for them and may even be at odds with each other, as they were with the pilots (a perception part fighting against a powerful narrative-generating part). The unit of analysis in the report is not an entire pilot, but the various mechanisms of her mind. Allowing for these parts allows for functional explanations like the one we see.

An un-scientific analysis, on the other hand, is entirely possible. But it would stop at the pilot. He or she is, after all, an indivisible, permanent entity. There is nothing else “doing duty” for him, so there are really only two choices: his experience was an illusion or it was real. End of analysis. Interpret it as an illusion and you don’t really have much to say; interpret it as real, and you can make a lot of money.

Entia Permanentia

Good scientific research in education will adopt an entia successiva perspective about the people it studies. This does not guarantee that its conclusions are correct. But it makes it more likely that, over time, it will get to the bottom of things.

This is not to say that an alternative perspective is without scientific merit. If we want to know how to improve the performance of the Boston Symphony, we can make some headway with ‘entia permanentia’—seeing the symphony as a whole stable unit rather than a collection of successive parts. We could increase its funding, perhaps try to make sure “it” is treated as well as other symphonies around the world. We could try to change the music, maybe include some movie scores instead of that stuffy old classical music. That would make it more exciting for audiences (and more inclusive), which is certainly one interpretation of “improvement.” But to whatever extent improvement means improving the functioning of the parts of the symphony—the musicians, the director, etc.—we can do nothing, because with entia permanentia these tiny creatures do not exist. Even raising the question about improving the parts would be beyond the scope of our imagination.

Further, seeing students as entia permanentia rather than entia successiva stops us from being appropriately skeptical about both ‘scientific’ and ‘un-scientific’ ideas. Do students learn best when matched to their learning style? What parts of their neurophysiology and psychology could possibly make something like that true? Why would it have evolved, if it did? In what other aspects of our lives might this present itself? Adopting the entia successiva perspective would have slowed the adoption of this myth (even if were not a myth) to a crawl and would have eventually killed it. Instead, entia permanentia, a person-level analysis, holds sway: students benefit from learning-style matching because we see them respond differently to different representations. End of analysis.

A different but similar perspective on this, from a recurring theme in the book Switch:

In a pioneering study of organizational change, described in the book The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal, researchers divided the change efforts they’d studied into three groups: the most successful (the top third), the average (the middle third), and the least successful (the bottom third). They found that, across the spectrum, almost everyone set goals: 89 percent of the top third and 86 percent of the bottom third . . . But the more successful change transformations were more likely to set behavioral goals: 89 percent of the top third versus only 33 percent of the bottom third.

Why do “behavioral” goals work when just “goals” don’t? Behavioral goals are, after all, telling you what to do, forcing you to behave in a certain way. Do you like to be told what to do? Probably not.

But the “you” that responds to behavioral goals isn’t the same “you” whose in-the-moment “likes” are important. You are more than just one solid indivisible self. You are many selves, and the self that can start checking stuff off the to-do list is often pulling the other selves behind it. And when it does, you get to think that “you” are determined, “you” take initiative, “you” have willpower. But in truth, your environment—both immediate and distant, both internal and external—has simply made it possible for that determined self to take the lead. Behavioral goals often create this exact environment.

Variation and Example Spaces

I‘ve been thinking a lot about Craig Barton’s wonderful book How I Wish I’d Taught Maths and have been scanning three of his new websites, Variation Theory, Same Surface, Different Deep Problems, and Maths Venns, as well as some research and other books on variation, and a lot of online commentary, in anticipation of starting to implement these ideas in some way.

Writing Algebraic Expressions

As I was reading the last page of Mr Barton’s Book, I was working on instruction around writing algebraic expressions, so this is the topic kind of hovering next to me wherever I go, waiting for when I have time to dig in. This topic is a little more fraught than the purely procedural examples that have been circulating, so it’s worth exploring how variation can be applied to something a little looser.

What does writing algebraic expressions involve (for a beginner)? Well, if I force myself to ignore what other people think writing algebraic expressions involves (essentially ignoring standards and any written material on the topic), then I would say that writing algebraic expressions means to write something like s + 2 or 2 + s when presented with a question like “How old in years will Sam be in exactly two years?”1

This, then, I would call the first example in my example space. Or, rather, an example of an example in the example space—because, if this example is any good, then I will use it as an instructional example to start and leave it out of variation work, which is about PRACTICE, not instruction.2 So, something like this, with the brilliantly simple Silent Teacher method, mentioned in Barton’s book (and a few other places), though without the natural pauses and instructions for students to copy down the correct worked example used during a normal classroom implementation of this.

Try This One

Write an algebraic expression to model the situation.

How old in years was Sam exactly 10 years ago?

I would include a follow-up to this process, here involving a discussion around (a) the idea that the resulting algebraic expression represents an answer to the question of how old Sam will be—it’s just that one part of that expression is not known, (b) asking students to check that the answer makes sense, here by substituting different values for s and comparing the result to the situation, (c) the idea that any letter can be chosen for the variable, and (d) perhaps drawing a visual model of the result (an annotated number line). Some of these could be packaged into the instruction and question above, of course—or perhaps I’ll decide to split this up even more, considering how much “in addition to” I’ve now done about this—but I think that, in general, leaving room for a stepping back step at the end of this is a good idea, to catch the kind of overflow that is difficult to squeeze into expositions like this.

And Now Enters Variation

The paired problem here has opened up a dimension of variation—using addition or subtraction in the expression, so we can play with that during Intelligent Practice (really love that phrase). Technically, the instruction was open to all four operations, but I think it makes sense to focus exclusively on addition and subtraction, leaving multiplication and division expressions for another round.

Here’s what I cooked up.

  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 10 dollars?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 10 cents?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 2 dollars?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he lost exactly 10 cents?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 1 dollar?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he lost exactly 1 dollar?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 50 cents?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he lost exactly 2 dollars?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he got exactly 25 cents?
  1. How much money in dollars did Sam have if he didn’t lose or gain any money?

After this, it might be good to have students cut out the strips and place them on a number line.

It’s interesting how much my experience and training rebels against this process. What I want to get to, right away, are the difficult and ambiguous situations. In particular, I started with, and then rejected, a variation sequence involving height: How tall in inches will Sam be if he grows 2 inches? The subtraction variation is bound to confuse: How tall in inches was Sam if he grew 2 inches? That’s tricky.

But knowing about and looking out for those tricky and ambiguous and interesting situations can serve you well creating instructional routines like this. It shows you where you’re going—and your example space can be richer and broader. And if you’re serious about implementing minimally different variation like this, it shows you how far away your knowledge really is from a beginner’s. You just have to learn to have more sympathy for learners who are encountering mathematics for the first time that you’ve seen a gazillion times.


  1. It’s important to me—at the moment, at least—that the examples in this example space should also involve identifying the correct unknown, rather than simply recording the unknown, as would happen with a question like, “Sam is s years old. How old will he be in 2 years?” or with an exercise of the form “2 more than a number.” In both of these cases, the unknown is entirely exposed.
  2. This is an important aspect of variation that I worry will be lost on U.S. teachers. Intelligent practice can’t happen, beneficially, until some acquisition has happened. In 20 years, I haven’t seen a robust public discussion about acquisition. The rhetoric around instruction in the States treats it as just one long assessment, though almost no one realizes that’s what it has become.








Mr Barton’s Book

It wasn’t too long ago—not even three years—that I finished reading David Didau’s terrific book (this one), so I still remember the excitement that I felt reading it, and watching all of the silly certainties of common wisdom in education being dismantled in front of my eyes, making way—I could only hope—for pedagogical practices informed by a real science of learning.

I felt a similar excitement reading Craig Barton’s book How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, because in this book, at long last, are many of those practices in one place, constructed, as readers will see, next to the debris of familiar canards and shallow reasoning that once guided parts of Barton’s teaching.

It is not a book full of proclamations about “best” practice. But you will find in this book a beautiful translation of the science of learning to the classroom. And far from the drudgery that one may imagine this to be, the joy of effective explicit instruction, for both teacher and students, comes through in every chapter of the author’s writing. It is serious, thorough, humble, and humane. And accessible: perhaps the greatest pleasure in reading it is knowing that you could turn around and start to implement many of these practices in short order—or, perhaps, that you already do these things, but don’t know why you should stick with them or how you could improve on them.

I have a lot of underlines and margin notes, but I think these three snippets together, from the chapter on problem solving and independence, are my favorites. The section starts, as they all do, with what the author used to think:

I used to love the sight of my students struggling through problems. Scratching heads, heavy sighs, and even the snap of a pencil thrown down in frustration were the soundtrack to learning. . . .

And then we are introduced to one of these problems, Question 23 from this paper (PDF), along with a deep concern for how novices will handle it. Contrast Barton’s new diagnosis below with common wisdom—that students ask why they are doing math because it is boring, tedious, procedural, or not relevant to their lives.

The task of choosing cards and calculating their totals may prove so cognitively demanding that novices do not have any spare cognitive capacity to recognise patterns. They do not realise that it is not the actual totals that matter, but whether those totals are odd or even. They just carry on regardless. Moreover, students are so consumed with the minutiae of the problem that no cognitive capacity remains to consider the global picture—why are they doing this? The result is that the novices may end up with an assortment of lists and totals, but not actually do anything with it—the fact that this is a probability question was pushed out of working memory long ago when the first set of cards was being processed.

As you might imagine, since the diagnosis is different from that received from common wisdom, the prescribed treatment is different too:

Before I set students off to work independently, I ensure they have enough domain-specific knowledge to solve problems on their own.

Although the snippets above are certainly grist for my mill, How I Wish I’d Taught Maths is not an ideological tome. It is eminently practical, taking the best ideas from all corners of the educational universe, squeezing them through the filter of cognitive science, and setting them in the right proportion to create a firm foundation that any educator—and especially any math educator—can use and build on. I highly highly recommend it to anyone who wants to strive for better in teaching and learning.