Updated: Jul 30, 2021
2020 has been a year like no other and now that the end of July is here, many of us are still wondering if and when things will go back to normal. Right now you might be trying to ease your child’s anxiety about the uncertainty of new school protocols, as well as having a new teacher, or how to play while staying at a safe distance. You might be wondering how you are supposed to once again handle your child’s schedule to make sure learning is happening on top of your own work schedule. Teachers, you might be nervous about returning to school in person and how to hold small group meetings with your students while also keeping everyone’s safety in mind or how best to create a schedule and use technology if you are online. I know that all of this has been weighing on my mind. Because in a few weeks, most children are going to be in some type of learning environment, even if it’s not something that we know as normal. But what does normal really mean and should we even want to return to it?
In episode 7, we start to explore this question.
The exact definition of normal means conforming to a standard. Given that, in some ways, I hope that we don’t return to normal.
Yes, I do wish for my family’s continued safety as well as your family’s, but I no longer want to accept an educational system that has a standard of marginalizing some children while lifting others into greater positions of privilege. Or a system where the standard is to value high-stakes testing over high-quality instruction. That’s a reality filled with inequities and injustices. That’s a reality where some children grow to dislike mathematics and never realize their full potential and where the standard says that it is okay to announce that “I’m not a math person”. It’s a reality where adults hold unproductive beliefs about how children learn and about who is capable of mathematics.
I strive for a new standard - where the reality is that children’s thoughts and opinions are valued and where mathematics is used not to separate but instead to help all children gain new perspectives of our world and to bring people closer together. Where “children’s abilities and dispositions toward mathematics are not [believed to be] fixed but [are known to be] shaped by their experiences (NCTM 2020, p.28).
I’ll put it like this -
In August, I hope we don’t choose to revert back to our previous “normal” where we might believe and say something unproductive such as “these kids are really low,” or “There’s a lot that they missed last Spring.”
Who will statements like these serve?
These “deficit-based descriptors” (Kobett and Karp 2020, p.5) only indicate what an adult believes a child has missed or didn’t learn. They are not facts but opinions - these descriptors ultimately use only an adult’s perception to indicate a child’s reality. Statements like these are born from our own implicit bias and lead to further inequities that we have accepted as a part of the normal standard - such as ability grouping where children are divided based on the deficit-based descriptors of “low”, “medium”, and “high”.
We have been conditioned by our past normal to search for and highlight items that need to be “worked on” and “fixed” instead of creating scenarios and experiences that “promote access and attainment for all students” (NCTM 2014). I admit I have been guilty of this as a teacher - I have been a part of ability grouping in the past where I had all of the “medium” students or the “high” kids in my room. I’m not saying that small group instruction is never needed - but I am saying that we have to ask ourselves - Why are we forming these groups? What are we giving children when we are meeting with them in small groups? Are they all getting the same quality of math experiences, even if it is for different concepts? Or have we been unconsciously telling ourselves that the “low” students need more remedial work, more worksheets and step-by-step direction, while those that we view as “high flyers” need more of a challenge and more practice on creative problem solving? When creating flexible groups, we have to ask ourselves -are all children getting opportunities that build positive experiences and help them be seen and known as doers of mathematics?
As The NCTM’s book Catalyzing Change in Early Childhood and Elementary Mathematics (2020) states, “any ability grouping in mathematics education is an inequitable structure that perpetuates privilege for a few and marginality for others”(p.27). I don’t want to return to this standard. You shouldn’t want to either. We need to stop accepting ability grouping as a standard and reframe how we describe children. “A major purpose of learning mathematics is to develop profound mathematical understanding in order to empower each and every child as a confident and capable mathematical learning who is willing and eager to tackle tasks…”(p.14). Ability grouping does not empower children.
I challenge us all to reframe our language, our thinking, and our practices -let’s adopt what authors Kobett and Karp (2020) refer to as a strengths-based approach, and instead use language and strategies that hold children harmless, strategies that celebrate them and position them all as competent learners - we can start by using phrases that stem from the positive, “they learned about foundational addition facts last year, and can use this understanding now to help learn about derived facts,” or “These children have a strength for persevering through problems.”
By choosing this second option, we will be living into a productive belief that “all students...regardless of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, need to be given the support, confidence, and opportunities to reach much higher levels of mathematical success and interest” (NCTM 2014, p.64).
This tiny change from one unproductive belief - labeling and separating children - to its productive alternative - of creating rich mathematical experiences for all children- creates a more equitable standard and vision of normal while at the same time increasing the chances of building positive mathematics identities.
Teachers- in the fall there is going to be a lot of temptation to “return to normal” and give lots of pre-assessments to figure out what children know and don’t know yet. The last thing we should want to do is over assess our children or separate them by ability. Instead of focusing on more testing, let’s take this strength-based approach, get to know our students based on these strengths and learn about their current mathematical abilities through rich tasks that are aligned to specific learning goals. Then we can use the variety of resources to help us incorporate needed review into current units of study. Inclusion instead of separation.
About a month ago, Achieve the Core released suggestions about essential learning standards for each elementary grade level. This is an excellent resource to use as you think about incorporating tasks. And you can use a resource like the NCTM’s book Taking Action (2017) to help you build and refine your learning goals.
But don’t do this work alone. Talk with your team about creating learning goals on a unit by unit basis. Talk with your school’s or district’s math coach or coordinator to see if there is already a plan in place for rich task implementation and learning goals for the first unit of the upcoming school year.
Parents - Ask your child’s teacher what the essential standards for this school year will be. Figure out what the assessment plan will be for both the classroom and what high-stakes assessments your child will be asked to be a part of in the coming months.
There are over 30 productive beliefs around the teaching and learning of mathematics that we can talk about and I encourage you to purchase The NCTM’s book Principles to Actions (2014) to explore these and the essential elements they are a part of -either on your own or better yet, as a part of a book study. Productive vs. unproductive beliefs are not something to be viewed as right vs. wrong - productive beliefs simply lead toward greater access to mathematical content and more equitable practices. Strengths-Based Teaching and Learning in Mathematics (Kobett and Karp 2020) is another book worth your time that will add a whole new layer of meaning to the idea of productive beliefs and creating meaningful learning opportunities for children. I’ll add the links to both of these in the show notes for you.
These books can be for teachers or parents - because remember, a child’s mathematics identity is impacted by not only how they see themselves as mathematicians, but also by how others see them. As The NCTM’s book Catalyzing Change (2020) states, “to do right by our children, we must move forward together. [We] must reflect on [our] roles as agents of change and reframe, intervene, and transform institutional structures, policies, and practices that perpetuate and promote systemic inequities for children” (p.29).
We as adults have that power. We engineer these opportunities and experiences for children. And what we believe about children affects this creation. In these upcoming weeks, let’s take the time to explore our own beliefs and how many of these are productive vs. unproductive. To get you started, I’m going to read some beliefs -Ask yourself which of the following you believe - and remember that this exercise only works if you are honest. So here they are-
Which of these do you believe?
Students can learn to apply mathematics only after they have mastered the basic skills.
All students should have access to technology and other tools that support the teaching and learning of mathematics.
The primary purpose of assessment is to inform and improve the teaching and learning of mathematics.
Effective teachers can work autonomously and in isolation As long as the students in one’s own classroom are successful, all is well.
Find out which ones are listed as productive and unproductive by downloading the PDF at the top of this post.
We have to believe that all children, regardless of their backgrounds, are capable and deserve opportunities to learn through rich tasks and equitable teaching practices.
Starting right now we have an opportunity- - instead of conforming and returning to our old version of normal, let’s use productive beliefs to build an equitable standard and use this to create our next normal.