Unintended Messages

I read an interesting article by Yong Zhao the other day entitled What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education where he discussed A simple reality that exists in schools and districts all over. Basically, he gives the analogy of education being like the field of medicine (Yes, I know this is an overused comparison, but let’s go with it for a minute).  Yong paints the picture of how careful drug and medicine companies have become in warning “customers” of both the benefits of using a specific drug and the potential side-effects that might result because of its use.

However, Yong continues to explain that the general public has not been given the same cautionary messages for any educational decision or program:

“This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” No such information is given to teachers or school principals.
“This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative.” No parent has been given information about effects and side effects of practices in schools.

Simply put, in education, we tend to discuss the benefits of any program or practice without thinking through how this might affect our students’ well-being in other areas.  The issue here might come as a direct result of teachers, schools and systems narrowing their focus to measure results without considering what is being measured and why, what is not being measured and why, and what the short and long term effects might be of this focus!


Let’s explore a few possible scenarios:

Practice:

In order to help students see the developmental nature of mathematical ideas, some teachers organize their discussions about their problems by starting to share the simplest ideas first then move toward more and more complicated samples.  The idea here is that students with simple or less efficient ideas can make connections with other ideas that will follow.

Unintended Side Effects:

Some students in this class might come to notice that their ideas or thinking is always called upon first, or always used as the model for others to learn from.  Either situation might cause this child to realize that they are or are not a “math person”.  Patterns in our decisions can lead students into the false belief that we value some students’ ideas over the rest.  We need to tailor our decisions and feedback based on what is important mathematically, and based on the students’ peronal needs.


Practice:

In order to meet the needs of a variety of students, teachers / schools / districts organize students by ability.  This can look like streaming (tracking), setting (regrouping of students for a specific subject), or within class ability grouping.

Unintended Side Effects:

A focus on sorting students by their potential moves the focus from helping our students learn, to determining if they are in the right group.  It can become easy as an educator to notice a student who is struggling and assume the issue is that they are not in the right group instead of focusing on a variety of learning opportunities that will help all students be successful.  If the focus remains on making sure students are grouped properly, it can become much more difficult for us to learn and develop new techniques!  To our students, being sorted can either help motivate, or dissuade students from believing they are capable!  Basically, sorting students leads both educators and students to develop fixed mindsets.  Instead of sorting students, understanding what differentiated instruction can look like in a mixed-ability class can help us move all of our students forward, while helping everyone develop a healthy relationship with mathematics.


Practice:

A common practice for some teachers involves working with small groups of students at a time with targeted needs.  Many see that this practice can help their students gain more confidence in specific areas of need.

Unintended Side Effects:

Sitting, working with students in small groups as a regular practice means that the teacher is not present during the learning that happens with the rest of the students.  Some students can become over reliant on the teacher in this scenario and tend to not work as diligently during times when not directly supervised.  If we want patient problem solvers, we need to provide our students with more opportunities for them to figure things out for themselves.


Practice:

Some teachers teach through direct instruction (standing in front of the class, or via slideshow notes, or videos) as their regular means of helping students learn new material.  Many realize it is quicker and easier for a teacher to just tell their students something.

Unintended Side Effects:

Students come to see mathematics as subject where memory and rules are what is valued and what is needed.  When confronted with novel problems, students are far less likely to find an entry point or to make sense of the problem because their teacher hadn’t told them how to do it yet.  These students are also far more likely to rely on memory instead of using mathematical reasoning or sense making strategies.  While direct instruction might be easier and quicker for students to learn things, it is also more likely these students will forget.  If we want our students to develop deep understanding of the material, we need them to help provide experiences where they will make sense of the material.  They need to construct their understanding through thinking and reasoning and by making mistakes followed by more thinking and reasoning.


Practice:

Many “diagnostic” assessments resources help us understand why students who are really struggling to access the mathematics are having issues.  They are designed to help us know specifically where a student is struggling and hopefully they offer next steps for teachers to use.  However, many teachers use these resources with their whole group – even with those who might not be struggling.  The belief here is that we should attempt  to find needs for everyone.

Unintended Side Effects:

When the intention of teachers is to find students’ weaknesses, we start to look at our students from a deficit model.  We start to see “Gaps” in understanding instead of partial understandings.  Teachers start to see themselves as the person helping to “fix” students, instead of providing experiences that will help build students’ understandings.  Students also come to see the subject as one where “mastering” a concept is a short-term goal, instead of the goal being mathematical reasoning and deep understanding of the concepts.  Instead of starting with what our students CAN’T do and DON’T know, we might want to start by providing our students with experiences where they can reason and think and learn through problem solving situations.  Here we can create situations where students learn WITH and FROM each other through rich tasks and problems.


Our Decisions:

Yong Zhao’s article – What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education – is titled really well.  The problem is that some of the practices and programs that can prove to have great results in specific areas, might actually be harmful in other ways.  Because of this, I believe we need consider the benefits, limitations and unintended messages of any product and of any practice… especially if this is a school or system focus.

As a school or a system, this means that we need to be really thoughtful about what we are measuring and why.  Whatever we measure, we need to understand how much weight it has in telling us and our students what we are focused on, and what we value.  Like the saying goes, we measure what we value, and we value what we measure.  For instance:

  • If we measure fact retrieval, what are the unintended side effects?  What does this tell our students math is all about?  Who does this tell us math is for?
  • If we measure via multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions as a common practice, what are the unintended side effects?  What does this tell our students math is all about?  How reliable is this information?
  • If we measure items from last year’s standards (expectations), what are the unintended side effects?  Will we spend our classroom time giving experiences from prior grades, help build our students’ understanding of current topics?
  • If we only value standardized measurements, what are the unintended side effects?  Will we see classrooms where development of mathematics is the focus, or “answer getting” strategies?  What will our students think we value?

Some things to reflect on
  • Think about what it is like to be a student in your class for a moment.  What is it like to learn mathematics every day?  Would you want to learn mathematics in your class every day?  What would your students say you value?
  • Think about the students in front of you for a minute.  Who is good at math?  What makes you believe they are good at math?  How are we building up those that don’t see themselves as mathematicians?
  • Consider what your school and your district ask you to measure.  Which of the 5 strands of mathematics proficiency do these measurements focus on?  Which ones have been given less attention?  How can we help make sure we are not narrowing our focus and excluding some of the things that really matter?

baba

As always, I encourage you to leave a message here or on Twitter (@markchubb3)!

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11 thoughts on “Unintended Messages

  1. This is a thoughtful response to what we all face in education today. Districts are all very focused on “measuring up”. Looking closely at what is being measured, and as important, what is NOT being measured should be part of our practice. I’m thankful for blogs like your blog and MtBOS for helping me strike a balance. Thanks for all you do to encourage my reflection.

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  2. Wondering if there are schools/districts that are doing a good job measuring students in terms of the Standards for Mathematical Practice? Aren’t these considered the overarching “things” that really matter?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have heard of some independent schools using the SMPs in their student progress reports, but I haven’t actually seen it firsthand. In terms of measuring, the wonderful rubric created by The Math Forum folks comes to mind and gets at several of the SMPs. I worry, though, about consistency in how the scale and student work is interpreted, but these are ongoing assessment concerns in a range of situations. Too narrow and too broad assessment criteria are both troublesome. Thanks for the dialogue. http://mathforum.org/pow/teacher/samples/MathForumSampleMathFundamentalsRubric.pdf

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    1. Lauren
      I have wondered this too. When I think about measuring the practices, I always end up conflicted. On the one hand, it is the practices that matter the most. On the other hand, if we try to measure the ability to engage in the practices, we will end up deconstructing them into bits? If the practices are ultimately meant to be integrated with the content standard, how could we measure them a part from the content standards? I really appreciate that you asked this question. What are you thoughts about how we could measure the practices?

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      1. I agree with you that we can’t measure the practices alone. Nor should we measure the content alone. Ideally, we would be able to focus on the content and the practices as teachers, and be responsive to the students in front of us. The difficult lies in attempting to make things uniform across a school or district. If this is the goal, then I think we need to have more open questions, ones where students are actually solving things and thinking deeply about the concepts they are learning in class. This could look like Always, Sometimes, Never questions where proof is key, or questions that get students to do other important verbs. Somehow, we can’t try to make things to narrow!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The question about the practices is an interesting one. Just about all the teachers, coaches, and administrators I work with in my day job are very interested in learning how they can better support students in developing MPs AND evaluate their progress (and also teachers’ progress in supporting students with MPs). We’ve had the same conversation recently — yay, because everyone is starting to think about the right things, but wow, you can just imagine how the practices could get deconstructed and simplified to the point of meaninglessness for the sake of creating some easy-to-use evaluation tool and it’s terrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! Something tells me that it’s the tasks and the mathematics we want to have come out of the tasks that need to be the focus. Anytime we break things down into little manageable chunks, we lose out on our goal!
      Either way, we need to deeply think about our decisions and the unintended messages they send to our students!

      Liked by 1 person

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