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)!

The smallest decisions have the biggest impact!

In my role, I have the advantage of seeing many great teachers honing and refining their craft, all to provide the best possible experiences for their students. The dedication and professionalism that the teachers I work with continue to demonstrate is what keeps me going in my role!

One particularly interesting benefit I have is when I can be part of the same lesson multiple times with different teachers.  When I am part of the same lesson several times I have come to notice the differences in the small decisions we make.  It is here in these small decisions that have the biggest impact on the learning in our classrooms. For instance, in any given lesson:

There are so many little decisions we make (linked above are posts discussing several of the decisions).  However, I want to discuss a topic today that isn’t often thought about: Scaffolding.


For the past few months, the teachers / instructional coaches taking my Primary/Junior Mathematics additional qualifications course have been leading lessons. Each of the lessons follow the 3-part lesson format, are designed to help us “spatialize” the curriculum (allow all of us to experience the content in our curriculum via visuals / representations / manipulatives), and have a specific focus on the consolidation phase of the lesson (closing). After each lesson is completed I often lead the group in a discussion either about the content that we experienced together, or the decisions that the leader choose. Below is a brief description of the discussion we had after one particular lesson.


First of all, however, let me share with you a brief overview of how the lesson progressed:

  1. As a warm up we were asked to figure out how many unique ways you can arrange 4 cubes.
  2. We did a quick gallery walk around the room to see others’ constructed figures.
  3. We shared and discussed the possible unique ways and debated objects that might be rotations of other figures, and those that are reflections (take a look at the 8 figures below).
  4. The 3 pages of problems were given to all (see below).  Everyone had time to work independently, but sharing happened naturally at our tables.
  5. The lesson close included discussions about how we tackled the problems.  Strategies, frustrations, what we noticed about the images… were shared.

Here are the worksheets we were using so you can follow along with the learning (also available online Guide to Effective Instruction: Geometry 4-6, pages 191-212):

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While the teacher leader made the decision to hand out all 9 problems (3 per sheet) at the same time, I think some teachers might make a different decision. Some might decide to take a more scaffolded approach. Think about it, which would you likely do:

  1. Hand out all 9 problems, move around the room and observe, offer focusing questions as needed, end in a lesson close; or
  2. Ask students to do problem 1, help those that need it, take up problem 1, ask students to do problem 2, help those that need it, take up problem 2…

This decision, while seemingly simple, tells our students a lot about your beliefs about how learning happens, and what you value.

So as a group of teachers we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches. Here are our thoughts:

The more scaffolded approach (option 2) is likely easier for us. We can control the class easier and make sure that all students are following along. Some felt like it might be easier for us to make sure that we didn’t miss any of our struggling students. However, many worried that this approach might inhibit those ready to move on, and frustrate those that can’t solve it quickly. Some felt like having everyone work at the same pace wasn’t respectful of the differences we have in our rooms.

On the other hand, some felt that handing out all 9 puzzles might be intimidating for a few students at first. However, others believed that observing and questioning students might be easier because there would be no time pressure. They felt like we could spend more time with students watching how they tackle the problems.

Personally, I think our discussion deals with some key pieces of our beliefs:

  • Do we value struggle?  Are we comfortable letting students productively keep trying?
  • Are we considering what is best for us to manage things, or best for our students to learn (teacher-centered vs student-centered)?
  • What is most helpful for those that struggle with a task?  Lots of scaffolding, telling and showing?  Or lots of time to think, then offer assistance if needed?

In reality, neither of these ways will likely actually happen though. Those who start off doing one problem at a time, will likely see disengagement and more behaviour problems because so many will be waiting. When this happens, the teacher will likely let everyone go at their own pace anyway.

Similarly, if the teacher starts off letting everyone go ahead at their own pace, they might come across several of the same issues and feel like they need to stop the class to discuss something.

While both groups will likely converge, the initial decision still matters a lot.  Assuming the amount and types of scaffolding seems like the wrong move because there is no way to know how much scaffolding might be needed. So many teachers default by making sure they provide as much scaffolding as possible  however, when we over-scaffold, we purposely attempt to remove any sense of struggle from our students, and when we do this, we remove our students’ need to think!  When we start by allowing our students to think and explore, we are telling our students that their thoughts matter, that we believe they can think, that mathematics is about making sense of things, not following along!

So I leave you with a few thoughts:

  • Do your students expect you to scaffold everything?  Do they give up easily?  How can we change this?
  • When given an assignment do you quickly see a number of hands raise looking for help?  Why is this?  How can we change this?
  • At what point do you offer any help?  What does this “help” look like?  Does it still allow your students opportunities to think and make sense of things?

When we scaffold everything, we might be helping them with today’s work, but we are robbing them of the opportunity of thinking. When we do this, we rob them of the enjoyment and beauty of mathematics itself!