I think we can all agree…

In a recent conversation with a group of math teachers, one colleague began a statement about the role of math teachers with this: “I think we can all agree…”

One problem… we did not all agree. “Actually…” I began my reply.

His statement was something like this: “…our primary role/responsibility is to make math easier for students by efficiently providing them with clear and concise explanations.”

There was a time in my career when I might have agreed with him. In fact, I probably spent the first ten years of my career striving to get better at exactly that. And, over time, my explanations did get better. I took pride in my ability to deliver content in bite-sized easy to digest pieces. This ability defined me as a teacher.

Simultaneously, I was growing more uncomfortable with this. I felt like I was teaching punctuation when, really, I wanted to be teaching literature. If I wanted my students to think mathematically, persevere in solving problems, appreciate mathematics, etc. my belief about my role had to change. In short, I had to “be less helpful.” I had to let go of what I had worked so hard to accomplish.

Back to that conversation at the school… here we were discussing the effectiveness of a particular problem-based lesson while holding opposing beliefs about what it means to teach.

“FOSSILS!” –Lewis Black

Lately, I’ve been thinking  about ways to bring forward these beliefs. I created an activity and tried it out over the last two days with two groups of math team mentors and administrators. The gist of it:

  1. Place each belief statement where you think it belongs on the truthiness continuum.
  2. If necessary, rewrite each statement so that it can be placed on the far right.

Teachers enjoyed the activity and I enjoyed eavesdropping on some thoughtful conversations. Each belief statement was inspired by actual comments that I have heard in the last two years. For what it’s worth, two of the statements (I won’t tell you which two) were taken directly from the WNCP Mathematics K-7 Integrated Resource Package and educators placed these statements, unedited, on the far right.

Below are some examples of how teachers rewrote statements so that they felt right– from the gut.

There are three types of people: mathy people and non-mathy people.
became
All students are capable of learning mathematics. Mathematical thinkers are created, not born.

(Okay, I served up a softball.)

The most effective way to have students learn basic facts is by building brain muscle memory through timed drills and lots of practice.
became
The LEAST effective way to have students learn basic facts is by building brain muscle memory through timed drills and lots of practice.

Ha! BTW, other groups focused on the importance of having flexible strategies.

And check this out:

The primary role/responsibility of the teacher is to make the learning of mathematics easier for students by efficiently providing clear and concise explanations.
became
The primary role/responsibility of the teacher is to provide opportunities for students themselves to make sense of mathematics, to scaffold when necessary, and to help students make connections to the big ideas. 

Of course, it’s not enough to believe. There’s also the challenge of putting these beliefs into practice. But that, I think we can all agree, is a different conversation.

Update: Truthiness Cards for Secondary Teachers

Teaching “Believees”

From Louis C.K.’s Live at the Beacon Theater (expletives, and humour, deleted):

I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of them. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs, I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little “believees,” they make me feel good about who I am, but if they get in the way of a thing I want, I do that.

beaconI’ve been thinking about teaching believees.

“Mistakes are opportunities to learn.”

“Students need to be comfortable taking intellectual risks.”

Warm fuzzies. Cheezy posters.

- Chris Hunter
CHRIS HUNTER

And then…

“Fifteen percent of your grade will be based on homework.”

Doesn’t exactly encourage students to make and correct errors or take risks, does it?

“Struggle is a necessary part of learning.”

“Problem solving builds perseverance.”

More warm fuzzies. More cheezy posters.

Don'tEverGiveUpAnd then…

Simplified, spoon-fed, step-by-step directions. Practice pretending to be problem-solving.

Why the vast disconnect? Do we really just like the believing part? It can’t be about things we want. Who wants to mark homework? Who wants to teach follow-the-recipe mathematics?

March 5, 2013: I wrote this post about six months ago but didn’t publish it; it seemed a tad negative. But it is a reminder to teach by my beliefs. So I guess there’s that.