Building Conceptual Knowledge with Desmos

  • by Ashley Taplin
  • Dec. 12, 2020, 4:53 p.m.

By Ashley Taplin

Desmos is one of my favorite digital platforms for math instruction because their classroom activities, linked here, are rooted in problem solving and inquiry approaches. I have loved using Desmos for several years, but more recently as the need for virtual learning platforms has grown, I started to think about what makes Desmos lessons so effective. Nick Corley, a Desmos fellow, shared a blog post with me describing the pedagogy behind Desmos lessons and I love how it explained the importance of developing conceptual knowledge prior to learning a procedure. Their lessons and activities do this in several unique ways.

Activity Builder Lessons in Desmos

In every lesson, Desmos ensures that the learning is based on a “problematic activity” that creates a need for the math. Framing the lesson around this engages students and drives their curiosity as they uncover what they need to know to solve the problem. In addition, Desmos builds their lessons with “informal analysis before formal.” For example, they suggest that lessons should do the following:

  • Ask for estimations before calculations
  • Conjectures before proofs
  • Sketches before graphs
  • Verbal rules before algebraic rules
  • Home language before school language.

Some of my favorite pre-built Desmos lessons are “Will it Hit the Hoop” (high school) “Land the Plane” (middle school), and “Adding Whole Numbers” (elementary). In each, you can see the power of inquiry, the development of both prior knowledge and language, and rich mathematical understanding unfold.

Activity Builder Card Sorts

Another feature that can be incorporated into Desmos lessons is a card sort which can help develop conceptual understanding, build mathematical language, and activate prior knowledge. I often use a prompt that is featured in several Desmos card sorts: “Sort the cards into any amount of piles. Then explain your reasoning.” Instead of focusing on accuracy, students are able to explore and discover their own reasoning, engaging in more inquiry-based discussions.

Whether I use pre-made Desmos activities or design my own, building conceptual knowledge has helped guide my lesson development while incorporating mathematical language and prior knowledge.

Ashley Taplin is a secondary Math coach in the NorthEast ISD in San Antonio, Texas. Check out Ashley's website for more great strategies and ideas like this!