I had an interesting experience I wanted to share. I haven’t fully developed this idea, but I’m sharing it to see what you think…

About a year ago I sat in the audience as Dan Meyer presented his take on problem-based learning. Now, I’ve seen Dan present at least a dozen times, and every single time I feel like I learn something new or think about something from a perspective I hadn’t considered.

So, at the end of this particular presentation, I said hi to two friends who also watched this presentation and had been to one of Dan’s full day training. I asked them what they thought of the presentation they had just seen, and their response surprised me.

They said that they had already seen him present about problem-based learning and that this was more of the same. Again, this response really caught me off guard. I thought he covered so many new areas that I hadn’t seen him talk about before. I had also attended that full day training and found almost no overlap. I wondered how we saw things so differently.

I thought about this for some time and I finally came up with a metaphor to explain it… though I don’t know what to do about it.

Consider two people watching a Martha Stewart cooking show on television. One person rarely cooks and the other is a seasoned chef. After watching two episodes, consider these two potential reflections:

  • The person who rarely cooks may think, “Her shows are so repetitive. All she does is show you how to make appetizers and shares her recipe.”
  • The seasoned chef may think, “I love how she made appetizers for a steak dinner in the first episode and different appetizers for a Super Bowl party in the second episode.”

In this case, the experiences both people come with affect their ability to appreciate the nuances and finer points shared. Similarly, I wonder if our differing levels of experience with problem-based learning affected our perspectives on Dan’s presentation. Presenters want to find that balance of reinforcement and repetition. For example, some people watch the same movie over and over and each time find something new that they hadn’t noticed.

I’m not sure what the implications are or how to prevent this from happening. It just seems like it’s happening. Furthermore, could the same thing be happening with our students? Are they thinking, “All this teacher does is talk about fractions/variable/rectangles” without understanding the nuances?

Any thoughts here would be appreciated. Do you see this happening? Have you found a way to mitigate it? Please let me know in the comments.


  1. This happens a lot in many fields. Consider:
    “All this Fed chairperson talks about is GDP, the labor market, and inflation” (economic policy)
    “All these vioinists do is saw away on their violins” (classical music)
    “All these players do is move a ball around the field” (pro sports broadcasts)

    The trained observer (whether formally or informally trained) brings knowledge of context, rules, patterns with them that gives meaning to what is being presented. They will (usually) recognize the nuances and appreciate what is different about this specific presentation.

    If we want to include the non-expert, then the presenter has to incorporate context and explicitly flag items to which the novice should be attending. In the economics example, that could be charts that show the history of GDP growth and inflation against the current level and the forecast. For music, it might be something like Saint-Saens carnival of the animals where the listener is cued by the words to listen for particular features of the music (and the musical segments are so clearly distinct). In the sports example, different sports make different choices and end up with varying accessibility to newcomers.

    However, it isn’t possible to provide all the context that is necessary for all possible audience members. This is where the presentation has to be customized to the audience. Also, since the presenter is likely an expert, they may not have a clue what context needs to be added for a novice to follow along because it has all become so ingrained. As a teacher, I guess the nice escape clause is that we can always ask questions and use other forms of assessment to find out what was actually understood.

    • Wow Joshua. This is a super thoughtful reply. I especially like this part, “If we want to include the non-expert, then the presenter has to incorporate context and explicitly flag items to which the novice should be attending.” I’ll have to think about it more because I’m not sure what that might look like at the moment.

    • Well, Joshua knocked this response out of the park. He articulated my thoughts far better than I could have. I think you are onto something, though. As a presenter, I am going to be pondering this.

      • Joshua’s response made me think of the idea of “professional noticing.” This is an idea out of the studies of experts in their field. What experts pick out, or notice, is different than what the less knowledgeable/experienced notice. Of course what you notice impacts how you interpret what you see and how you respond. This is similar to what you were saying, Robert.
        So what does that mean? To me it means that you tailor your talks to your audience. Right now I am grappling with some ideas that I think could be impactful for teachers in practice, but I have not yet found a practice-based “pull” that I think will get them in my session. That’s on me as the presenter. I know that the idea resonates with leaders, but I need more.
        In the end, it’s about audience. Robert, you said that we should flag the novice. I am not sure that would work when done explicitly because you risk highlighting something that could be still inaccessible or uninteresting, or already known to a particular individual. Perhaps this is no different than the practice of grouping students in leveled learning groups and limiting what information they get. In a more constructivist stance, each individual will get something from a talk, even if
        1) what that something actually is might surprise the presenter
        2) the attendee has not yet had time to process the information and assimilate it or
        3) perhaps the attendee is communicating a message more about their existing knowledge and status (showing affective concerns) rather than evidence of any professional learning. I have heard this behavior outside the larger halls as we wait in line to see some of the more popular speakers. Some might call it grandstanding.

        Generally, what I take from this is that presentations should address a primary audience, which is typically done by the submission process. Conference presentations should also veer off the main topic, and then interweave that with talk about “basics.” The best talks also make connections to unexpected topics. Case in point to end my long comment – Dr. Larson-Billings did a beautiful introduction to the humanity behind culturally responsive teaching in April, telling us about her own children’s school journey. What I remember is her discussion about alum, and how that was a pivotal incident for her as a child. Unexpectedly that anecdote is what resonated with my experiences. Who could have predicted that? I wouldn’t have, but as a masterful presenter, Dr. Larson-Billings must have suspected it would be effective for someone.
        My takeaway, in general – target your primary audience, but make big loops off the path before coming in for the powerful ending.

        • Thanks Kim. It’s amazing how complex this all gets. I think it’s also challenging because in the same session you might have people who have never heard about your topic, people who are familiar but haven’t heard your take, and even people who have heard you talk about it many times and want to learn more.

          I appreciate all the nuances you shared including helping me see the potential blind spots of modifications with good intentions that could instead be problematic. Thanks.

          • Thanks for responding, Robert. You really got me thinking about the topic.
            I find that reviewing hundreds of conference proposals for NCTM and NCSM has given me a better eye. But I t doesn’t always translate into writing them!!
            Also, the weaving in and out of a topic thing?… Mike Flynn is amazing at doing just that.

  2. I struggle with this, too. When participants hear a term they are familiar with (i.e. “problem-based learning”) they think, “Oh I have heard this before,” and seem to be listening through that lens rather the one you described that is open to new nuances and understandings. The trouble with this is, there is literally nothing that I know everything about, and I am pretty confident in saying the same is true for most people.

    I think there are benefits to having experienced and novice practitioners in the room together, so perhaps we need to be explicit about how we expect them to interact to best learn from each other? Novice teachers can ask some really great questions and help people get back to the “basics” of routines we may get sloppy with over time, while experienced teachers can offer insights they have gained through implementation of these ideas.

    Transparency helps, but certainly isn’t effective for all. I wrote about this in a blog post: http://53degreeshift.blogspot.com/2017/04/begin-again_12.html (Skip to about 2/3 of the way down!)

    I hope others join this conversation so we can continue to think through this common issue.

    • Thanks Anne. I agree that you want to have a mix of experience levels in the room. I think Joshua’s suggestions might work in terms of making it more explicit. Let’s keep thinking.

  3. So is this another listening 4 instead of listening 2 context? I am still on “How do I become a better listener of other’s ideas?” But maybe as presenters we also need to think about “How do I help members of my audience become better listeners?”
    To dig into that further, what sends people into that ” Oh, I’ve heard this before” frame of mind where listening stops? My first thoughts are:
    -buzz words
    -learning or topics that are specifically tied to that presenter
    -some other familiar piece of context ( visual pattern, pool tile problem, , , , , , )
    If we know these are things that shut down listening, then these are places where we need to plant those flags.
    “This is similar to things we have learned together about before, but is different in this important way.”
    “Many of you may have learned about problem based learning before. In this particular instance watch for _____ and we’ll talk about how that is different from what we have done before.”
    I see presenters do this frequently when introducing a video clip of children learning. Maybe watching those moves can help incorporate this thinking in our PD planning.

    • I’m not really sure Leeanne. It’s not my intention to vilify anyone. There have been times where I just wasn’t at a point where I could appreciate all the nuances until I had done more work and gained more experience. I’m more just calling out something I’m noticing.

  4. Robert, your experience is a VERY familiar one – whether it’s a session I’ve presented or attended. I believe that at times, those who say that it’s a repition might mean that the listeners may not be in position to hear more. They’re either not “able to” or “want to” hear the depth of the content. This is a real and difficult dilemma for the presenter. Just like in the classroom, the “learners” come in different shapes and sizes — different places on the learning curve. One technique that I’ve found useful (not always successful) is to have 2 min. “Connect times” for the participants when they engage in a purposeful quick chat (not time to solve a mathematical problem and sharing of strategies). The guiding question (requiring participants to reflect on possibilities of the content / process or ??) comes from the presenter. Then the presenter “summarizes” key points that she / he hopes were some that arose from their chat. Participants (depending on level of sophistication of understanding / experiences) can mentally engage by confirming, disagreeing or considering the points shared. This is not to say the presenter is the “expert”, but just sharing some possible thoughts that connect the audience to the depth of the content. This one technique also gives the audience time to process the presentation / workshop content, connect / interact with others (thinking or …) as well as a break from trying to absorb all the presentation / workshop info at the end — a daunting task! Sometimes, the participants (just like the students we teach) are so overwhelmed by the presentation / workshop content that they respond with you heard — they perhaps haven’t had to chance to process or just not ready … yet.

    • Thanks Selina. Great points. I’m totally with you in terms of how it “might mean that the listeners may not be in position to hear more.” I know that’s personally been the case when I’m watching a presentation.

  5. WOW! Joshua, Kim, and others have provided incredibly insightful responses, and I can’t add anything to them. This has been a particularly useful discussion to me as a presenter. Particularly when I’m presenting on a topic that I have done frequently, I’ve always been so excited with the new content, ideas, and activities I’ve found to incorporate into the session, and so thrilled by my “new session” that I have to admit it never occurred to me that those who might have heard me talk about the topic before would be hearing/thinking “same old, same old”! There have been some excellent suggestions made as to how to try to keep that from happening, and I’ll certainly be much more aware of that possibility going forward. Thanks for providing a place for this very important discussion!!

  6. Both the post and the comments here are immensely well thought out and I’m learning a ton. Not necessarily to add to it but just as another anecdote, I often take time to purposely call out at the beginning and multiple times throughout presentations or PD the difference between confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. I try to ask people to hold those in tension – when you feel like you know something or it sounds familiar, listen for the unfamiliar. And then I try to do multiple check ins asking those questions – what resonates, what’s creating dissonance, what are you being challenged by, what feels similar, etc. Then, finally, I think having groups do small group check ins throughout to share those nuances creates the power for takeaways; like small group work in classrooms where a good problem could pull out varying ways of approach and thinking from the different members of the group.

    (Lastly, Google “comforting lies vs unpleasant truths image” and the first cartoon is something I use as a notice wonder at the beginning of topics I present on that I’ve talked about before)

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