For a while now, you’ve read about the Rights of the Learner (RotL) (1 2 3 4) and how it can help push students’ ideas/voices/thinking to the forefront. Students who exercise their rights to learn see that ALL of their ideas are valuable and can make a contribution to the classroom. But other than encouraging students to exercise their rights as learners (and doers) of mathematics, how else can teachers redistribute the power in the classroom so that more students find success in mathematics?
For the past three years, I have been blessed to work on a project Sandra Crespo, Nicole Bannister, Diana Bowen and Lori Jacques. Without getting too much into the weeds about the specifics of the project, we use an online digital platform called LessonSketch to present a series of cartoon storyboards that shows children working on a mathematical task. The goal of our project is to help our pre-service teachers to use strength-based language to name and notice students’ mathematical strengths.
Strength-based language emphasizes what students KNOW instead of what they DON’T know (Jilk, 2016).
Mathematical strengths are more than just getting the right answer or being fast to solve a problem– those are strengths that are overvalued in our schools. Those students are always seen as smart. What about everyone else? What are their strengths? How are all kids smart in some way? By only focusing on a small subset of smartness, we are missing the subtle examples of students’ mathematical strengths. Maybe a story might help put this in more concrete terms:
Imagine that you are a student who is presented with the following division problem, “I have 24 cookies to share with some friends. Each friend can get 4 cookies each. How many friends can you share your cookies with?” What if you as the student said, “well I know that 24 – 4 – 4 – 4 – 4 – 4 – 4= 0 so because there are six 4s, that must mean I can share my cookies with 6 friends?” Let’s pause here and consider the following scenarios and tell me which one you would want to hear if you were the child:
- Your teacher interrupts you and says, “24/4=6, so the answer is 6. You need to memorize your division facts. What you did took too long to get to the answer.”
- Your teacher listens to your strategy and says, “Ohh… well, at least you got 6. Good job.”
- Your teacher listens to your strategy and then responds, “Ohh it was smart when you used repeated subtraction to solve that division problem. I see that you arrived at the answer of 6 friends. How you solved it actually represents the actions in the story and helped you to find an answer.”
What’s the difference between these scenarios? Did one feel different to you than the others? Scenario1 emphasizes the deficits in the child’s strategy. What did the child NOT do well or correct. The Scenario2 gives the child praise, but it isn’t really a neutral statement (something that our LessonSketch group is writing about now). The Scenario2 has a subtext that says “you didn’t solve it how I wanted you to solve it, but at least you got the right answer.” The Scenario3 should feel different because it has the three markers of a strength-based statement (Jilk, 2016):
- uses the phrase “it was SMART when”
- states the mathematical smartness (using repeated subtraction to solve a division problem)
- provides a justification for why this is something smart to notice (using repeated subtraction actually represented the actions in the story.)
Learning how to do this is hard because we’ve been trained to look for what’s wrong. Sound familiar? (if not, maybe you need to read my blog about the football Wonderlic test and how these assumptions about being smart can last for years…) Using strength-based language is challenging because as Jilk (2016) states:
…many of us experienced a very narrow and limited version of math as students, which can make it difficult to notice strengths in our classrooms. We teachers were often apprenticed into school mathematics communities with dominant cultural norms and practices that required us to memorize, practice, reproduce and solve problems quickly. (Hand, 2012; Secada, Fennema, & Adajian, 1995). Sadly, we might never have experienced the broad and beautiful practices that make up the field of mathematics, which makes it hard to know what counts as a strength. (p. 189)
Cohen, E. G. (1994). Designing group work: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Cohen, E. G., & Lotan, R. A. (2014). Designing group work: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Cohen, E., & Lotan, R. A. (1997). Working for equity in heterogeneous classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hand, V. (2012). Seeing culture and power in mathematics learning: Toward a model of equitable instruction. Educational Studies of Mathematics, 80, 233–247.
Jilk, L. M. (2016). Supporting Teacher Noticing of Students’ Mathematical Strengths. Mathematics Teacher Educator, 4(2), 188-199.
Secada, W., Fennema, E., & Adajian, L. B. (Eds.). (1995). New directions for equity in mathematics education. New York: Cambridge University Press.