Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics (Project SIGMa)

Good news to share: another research grant has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Yay!

For this project, my research team and I will be working with Math for America in Los Angeles to design a video-based coaching method for their Master Teacher Fellow program.

sigma logo

This is what we pitched to the NSF:

This study addresses the need to develop processes for adequate and timely feedback to inform mathematics teachers’ instructional improvement goals. In this study, we propose using design-based implementation research to develop and investigate a process for documenting mathematics teachers’ instruction in a way that is close to classroom practice and contributes to teachers’ ongoing pedagogical sense making. The practical contribution will be a framework for formative feedback for mathematics teachers’ learning in and from practice. The intellectual contribution will be a theory of mathematics teachers’ learning, as they move from typical to more ambitious forms of teaching in the context of urban secondary schools. Both the practical and theoretical products can inform the design of professional development and boost other instructional improvement efforts.

In a recent Spencer study, my team and I investigated how teachers used standardized test data to inform their instruction. (That team was Mollie Appelgate, Jason Brasel, Brette Garner, Britnie Kane, and Jonee Wilson.)

Part of the theory of accountability policies like No Child Left Behind is that students fail to learn because teachers do not always know what they know. By providing teachers with better information, teachers can adjust instruction and reach more students. There are a few ways we saw that theory break down. First, the standardized test data did not always come back to teachers in a timely fashion. It doesn’t really help teachers adjust  instruction when the information arrives in September about students they taught last May. Second, the standardized test data took a lot of translation to apply to what teachers did in their classroom. Most of the time, teachers used data to identify frequently challenging topics and simply re-taught them. So students got basically the same instruction again, instead of instruction that had been modified to address central misunderstandings. We called this “more of the same,” which is not synonymous with better instruction. Finally, there were a lot of issues of alignment. Part of how schools and districts addressed the first problem on this list was by giving interim assessments –– basically mini versions of year end tests. Often, the instruments were designed in-house and thus not psychometrically validated, so they may have not always measured what they purported to measure. Other times, districts bought off-the-shelf interim assessments whose items had been developed in the traditional (and more expensive) manner. However, these tests seldom aligned to the curriculum. You can read the synopsis here.

Accountability theory’s central idea  ––  giving teachers feedback –– seemed important. We saw where that version broke down, so we wanted to figure out a way to give feedback that was closer to what happens in the classroom and doesn’t require so much translation to improve instruction. Data-informed action is a good idea, we just wanted to think about better kinds of data. We plan to use a dual video coaching system — yet to be developed — to help teachers make sharper interpretations of what is happening in their classrooms.

Why did we partner MfA LA? When I reviewed the literature on teachers’ professional learning, they seemed to be hitting all the marks of what we know to be effective professional development. They focus on content knowledge; organize their work around materials that can be used in the classroom; focus on specific instructional practices; they have a coherent and multifaceted professional development program; and they garner the support of teacher communities. Despite hitting all of these marks, the program knows it can do more to support teachers.

This is where I, as a researcher, get to make conjectures. I looked at the professional development literature and compared it to what we know about teacher learning. MfA may hit all the marks in the PD literature, but when we look at what we know about learning, we can start to see some gaps.

*Conjecture 1 Professional learning activities need to address teachers’ existing concepts about and practices for teaching.


Conjecture 2 Professional learning activities need to align with teachers’ personal goals for their learning.


Conjecture 3 Professional learning activities need to draw on knowledge of accomplished teaching.


*Conjecture 4 Professional learning activities need to respond to issues that come up in teachers’ ongoing instruction


*Conjecture 5 Professional learning activities need to provide adequate and timely feedback on teachers’ attempts to improve their instructional practice to support their ongoing efforts.


Conjecture 6 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with a community of like-minded colleagues to learn with and garner support from as they work through the challenges inevitable in transformative learning.


*Conjecture 7 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with rich images of their own classroom teaching.


The conjectures with * are the ones we will use to design our two camera coaching method.

We need to work out the details (that’s the research!) but  teacher’s instruction will be recorded with two cameras, one to capture their perspective on significant teaching moments and a second to capture an entire class session. The first self-archiving, point-of-view camera will be mounted on the teacher’s head. When the teacher decides that a moment of classroom discourse illustrates work toward her learning goal, she will press a button on a remote worn around her wrist that will archive video of that interaction, starting 30 seconds prior to her noticing the event. (As weird as it sounds, it has been used successfully by Elizabeth Dyer and Miriam Sherin!)  The act of archiving encodes the moment as significant and worthy of reflection. For example, if a teacher’s learning goal is to incorporate the CCSSM practice of justification into her classroom discourse, she will archive moments that she thinks illustrate her efforts to get students to justify their reasoning. Simultaneously, a second tablet-based camera would record the entire class session using Swivl®. Swivl® is a capture app installed in the tablet. It works with a robot tripod and tracks the teacher as she moves around the room, allowing for a teacher-centered recording of the whole class session. Extending the prior example, the tablet-based recording will allow project team members to review the class session to identify moments where the teacher might support students’ justifying their reasoning but did not do so. The second recording also captures the overall lesson, capturing some of the lesson tone and classroom dynamics that are a critical context for the archived interactions. Through a discussion and comparison of what the teachers capture and what the project team notices, teachers will receive feedback on their work toward their learning goals. We will design this coaching system to address the starred conjectures in the table

Anyway, I am super excited about this project. I am working with amazing graduate students: Grace Chen, Brette Garner, and Samantha Marshall. Plus, my partners at MfA LA: Darryl Yong and Pam Mason.

I will keep you posted!




Playful Mathematics Learning

I have had the great pleasure of spending the last several days at the Minnesota State Fair.

math on a stick

My colleague Melissa Gresalfi and I got a National Science Foundation grant to study a very special exhibit there called Math On-A-Stick. We have an awesome team of graduate students helping us with the research. They are Lara Heiberger, Panchompoo Fai Wisittanawat, Kate Chapman, and Amanda Bell.

PML Logo

Math On-A-Stick is the brainchild of Christopher Danielson,  educator, promoter of talking math with your kids, and mathematical toy maker.

christopher danielson

That is Christopher on the right. The woman in the pink jacket is a former math teacher. She made the beautiful quilt for Math On-A-Stick.

The exhibit is just a delight. Not only is it a lovely respite in a shady, relatively quiet corner of the fairgrounds, it is filled with math play. Here are a few of the stations in the exhibit.

On the left is a tile station. The tiles are half black, half colored, and children can make all kinds of patterns with them. The center image comes from the pentagon station. I could spend all day there myself. I made that creation. On the right are tessalating lizards and turtles.

Everyday there are visiting mathematicians and mathematical artists. The first day I was there, Megan Schmidt brought some of her spiral magic. Yesterday were hexaflexagons.

Today, Christopher was the Visiting Mathematician. He built a giant pattern machine that children could play with. It is made up of little “pattern machines,” and the buttons pop up and down, making a satisfying clicking noise.

Melissa and I are interested in studying two things about children’s encounters with the exhibit. First, we are interested in the design, investigating how the various activities support mathematical interactions between children, the exhibit, the mathematics educators, parents –– and each other. Second, we are interested in children’s engagement. We want to examine how the children engage with different parts of the exhibit, looking for relationships among children’s ideas about mathematics, reported experiences in math class, and the exhibit design.

Our primary data come from recordings the kids make while they are playing. We outfit them with GoPro cameras so we can see how they interact with the exhibit, recording their interactions, their general gaze, and the time they spend at the various stations.


Melissa and Fai set up a stationary camera, while Lara pretends to be a kid at play.

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A couple of kids getting outfitted with GoPros

This is supplemented by entry and exit surveys, brief interviews, and stationary recordings of the stations (e.g. a camera positioned at the Pentagons so we can see how a cross section of children play with that station and compare that to the activity of our focal children).


Data collection station. It’s a well oiled machine.

We weren’t sure how kids would feel about us approaching them and asking them to wear the cameras on their heads. It turns out that they love it. They are really happy to share, as are the amazing volunteers, who have been very agreeable to getting captured in the video footage as the children play.

Our research findings will help us identify more ways to make mathematics play a part of instruction. Already, many children are telling us that Math On-A-Stick math is different than what they do in school –– even kids who are inventing and problem solving in impressive and novel ways. We are looking forward to analyzing the hundreds of hours of data we collect and sharing what we learn with all of you.


Renegotiating Classroom Treaties

Many classrooms are governed by tacitly negotiated treaties. That is, students trade in their compliance and cooperation –– student behaviors that alleviate the challenges of crowded classrooms ––  for minimal demands for engagement by the teacher. When I have worked with teachers trying out open-ended tasks for the first time, I will often hear about “pushback” or “resistance” from the students: “I tried using this activity but the kids balked. They complained the whole time and refused to engage.”

These student responses indicate that teachers are violating their part of the treaty by going beyond minimal demands for engagement and increasing intellectual press. Put differently, by using an open-ended task, teachers raise the social risk, leaving students open to judgment since they can not rely on the usual rituals of math class to hide their uncertainty. Treaties may, as their name suggests, keep the peace, but they reflect norms of minimal engagement that interfere with deeper learning.

In my own observations, I see teachers struggle to move students past their initial reluctance to participate and make it clear that active involvement is required in their classrooms. Renegotiating classroom treaties requires a clear vision for what student participation can look like, structures to support that vision, along with the determination to see it through. The teachers I interviewed for my forthcoming book all emphasize how critical the first days are for setting these expectations for their students, particularly since their expectations may differ from what students are used to in math class. “It’s entirely intentional that I begin setting norms and structures on the first day of school,” Fawn explains. By launching the new school year by showing students what it means to do math in her class, Fawn renegotiates the classroom treaty through norms and structures, introducing the Visual Pattern and other discourse routines from the start. She says, “I need to provide students with ample opportunities to experience the culture that we have set up. We need to establish and maintain a culture that’s safe for sharing and discussing mathematics, safe for making mistakes, and a culture that honors each person’s right to contribute. There needs to be a firm belief among everyone that mathematics is a vital social endeavor. Building this culture takes time.”
Starting the school year with clear expectations is important, but guiding individual students’ participation is an ongoing project. The teachers I interviewed have numerous strategies for monitoring and building positive participation throughout the year. Students students who hide or students who dominate make for uneven participation. The teachers describe how they contend with these inevitable situations.
When figuring out how to respond to quiet students, the teachers try to understand the nature of students’ limited participation. Not all quiet students are quiet for the same reasons. At times, quietness is rooted in temperament: some students inclined to hang back until they feel confident about what is going on, but they are tracking everything in class. These students do not contribute frequently, but, when they do, their contributions add a lot to conversations. This kind of quiet is less of a concern and can even be acknowledged: “Raymond, you don’t talk a lot, but when you do, I always love hearing what you have to say.”
Other times, quietness signals students’ lack confidence. That is, students indicate some understanding in their work or small group conversations, but they do not have the confidence to participate in public conversations. With these students, the teachers seek out individual conversations. Chris calls these doorway talks, while Peg calls them sidebars. (“Trying to deal with calculators and rulers at the end of class, I couldn’t make it to the doorway!” Peg tells me when I note the different names.) “I might say to a kid, ‘You know, you had really good ideas today, and I would have loved to have heard more of them in the conversation we had a the end. I think you have a lot more to contribute than you give yourself credit for.’” Sometimes, there are ways of encouraging good ideas to become public that do not directly address the student. Chris explains that he might say something like, “I haven’t heard from this corner of the room.” He then asks other students to hold their ideas while waiting for a contribution from the quiet group.

Of course, some students are quiet because they really do not know what is going on. This could be due to a language issue, in which case, the teacher needs to modify instruction to give them more access to the ideas. If there are other learning issues going on, this might suggest the need to check in with colleagues about the students performance in previous years or in other subjects.

Talkative students pose another kind of challenge to the expectation that everyone participates.  On the one hand, they can provide wonderful models of sharing their thinking. They can be the “brave volunteers” who explore their thinking publicly, and teachers can lean on them to get conversations started. On the other hand, they can be domineering, making it difficult for other students to get a word in. The quiet students who temperamentally need to think before they speak have their counterparts in some talkative students: these are the students who think by talking. Asking for their silence sometimes gets heard as asking them not to think. When I have had students like that in my own classes, I make sure to assure them that I value their engagement but that I need them to find other strategies for processing so that other students can be heard. Sometimes, students with impaired executive functioning, like those with ADD, have a hard time with the turn-taking aspect of classroom dialogue, so not only do they talk a lot sometimes, they struggle to take turns. Again, teachers can respond by valuing students’ ideas while helping them participate more effectively: “I know you get excited, but we need to take turns so that we can hear each other.” Finally, domineering behavior can get expressed through a lot of talking: students who are highly confident in their understanding and want to explain to others. Teachers need to judge the extent to which this is altruistic, a sense of trying to share knowledge, and the extent to which it shuts conversations down. In the first case, students can be coached towards asking questions of their classmates, channeling their impulse to talk into something constructive. In the second case, the dominance can be corrosive to the classroom culture and the students might need stronger redirection. For all of this feedback, similar strategies of direct address (via sidebars or doorway talks) and indirect address (“Let’s hear from somebody else”) can help teachers manage participation.

What Does It Mean to Study Teachers’ Learning from a Sociocultural Perspective?

I try to be a plain-talking academic when I engage in the public realm of social media. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I find myself wanting to use academic jargon. My goal in writing this blog is to have conversations with both educators and researchers, so I think it is okay to have “turns” of conversation that lean a little more on my research voice than my educator voice.

Sociocultural is jargon word that I have wanted to invoke from time to time when talking to my practitioner friends. In particular, the research I do uses sociocultural learning theories as a way of describing both how students and teachers learn.

But what does that mean? In order to understand, you need a little history on how we have come to think about learning the way we do.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. research on learning was dominated by behaviorism. Seeking a rigorous empirical basis for a study of behavior, researchers like E.L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner sought to explain how learning happened by documenting what they could see empirically.

Out of this theory, we have ideas like operant conditioning, where actions are shaped by stimulus and responses in the environment to ultimately change behavior. Skinner famously made little operant conditioning chambers called “Skinner boxes” that successfully “taught” pigeons to dance. Through the boxes, food was dispensed in response to the pigeon’s movements. If he turned his head to the left –– the stimulus –– he would get a food pellet –– the response. The next time, he had to turn his head a little further to get his food. Eventually, through operant conditioning, the pigeon learned to turn in a full circle –– to “dance” –– to get food.

dancing pigeons

Behaviorism explained some forms of learning, but it couldn’t explain everything. In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution began. Researchers like Jerome Bruner began to critique behaviorism, noting that a sole focus on behavior precluded a study of how people created meaning, a central question in understanding why people do what they do. Researchers realized they could do empirical studies that included a theory of the mind. Using methods like case studies and talk aloud protocols, investigators could examine how people made sense of their activities in the world.

Cognitive science, as it came to be called, led to important insights like schema theory and conceptions. A schema is a general system for understanding how knowledge is represented and how it is used.

Researchers can look for evidence of different schemata (the plural of schema). Like the behaviorists, they observed what people did to understanding learning. However, they augmented this by asking people to explain their thinking through interviews and surveys.

To give an example of a schema, let’s take the word “dog.” When I say “dog” what do you imagine?

You probably think of four-legged animals that bark, are furry, have tails. But how do you know that these are all dogs?

How do you know that these are not?

This is the question that underlies the idea of schemata.

The examination of schemata started to point to the importance of culture. Schemata are closely related to prototypes. So, for example, when I say the word “furniture” what do you think of?

Linguists have found that when you say the word “furniture” to Americans, they think the best examples are chair and sofa.

When you say the word “möbel” to Germans, however, they think the best examples are bed and table. Our schemata and our prototypes –– the building blocks of concepts in the world –– are culturally specific.

By the early 1990s, this increasing recognition of the importance of language, culture, and context shifted our ideas about learning yet again. Language and culture were not just the setting for development and thinking –– some kind of external variable to be controlled for –– they were, in fact, fundamental components of these mental processes. This insight meant that, to explain some learning phenomena, researchers needed to do more than describe mental structures.

This required another broadening of research methods. Using linguistics, anthropology, and sociology, learning researchers wanted to account for how concepts stretched beyond individual minds and into the world. Deeply influenced by Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, researchers working in this sociocultural tradition examined learning as it happened in interactions in the world, requiring new units of analysis. That is, instead of studying individuals as they learned, researchers sought ways to study individuals in context.

My own research takes up these sociocultural insights to re-think how we study teacher learning. Let me paint a bit of a picture for you about the intellectual traditions that shape my work.

First, when I entered my doctoral program at UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s, debates between cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on learning were quite active in my courses and in research groups. Although most arguments centered on questions of student learning, there was a growing interest in what was often called “out-of-school learning.” Influenced by anthropological researchers like Jean Lave, a small group of scholars studied workplace learning, a particularly pressing topic in our modern information economy, where workers must constantly adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Meanwhile, in educational policy studies, there was a growing recognition that research on school organization, curriculum, and teacher professional development had overlooked a central question: How do teachers’ learn? Since almost all school improvement efforts want to improve instructional quality –– through curricular reform, changes in scheduling or assessment techniques –– they all depend on what happens inside of classrooms. And that, of course, depends on what happens with teachers.

For this reason, educational policy scholars like Judith Warren Little and Mike Knapp were recognizing that teachers’ learning is an underanalyzed component of any efforts at school change or instructional improvement. Yet it was not central to policy designs –– let alone to analyses of their effectiveness.

The moment was ripe for somebody to connect these ideas. My work starts with the policy-based observation that designs for instructional change must consider teacher learning. I then use methods and insights from sociocultural theories of learning to examine how teachers’ learning happens in the school as a workplace. As the sociocultural theorists suggest, what teachers know and learn is not solely a product of what is in their individual heads.

Concepts for teaching draw on culturally specific practices and language in the world. For instance, in the U.S., we often start grouping children by ability levels at a very young age. The concept of a “high ability 6 year old” makes sense for American teachers in a way that it would not to teachers in countries that do not track in the elementary years. There are consequences to that concept having social meaning, as educators make decisions about their schools and classrooms and parents advocate for certain experiences.

By using sociocultural perspectives to explain teachers’ learning, my research is culturally specific and theoretically specific. Although the details of what I find about U.S. teachers may not generalize to other countries, it is my hope that my descriptions of teachers’ learning can be more generalizable.

Structure Can Change Agency

One great privilege of the work I do are the many opportunities I get to share the things I care about with different groups of people. If you do it enough, you get a chance to clarify your own ideas, learn from others, and notice connections.

This past weekend, I had the honor to give a keynote talk at the Carnegie Math Pathways Forum. If you don’t know about their work, it is worth checking out. Briefly, their work addresses the enormous blockage in the math pipeline as students transition from secondary to post-secondary. A staggering number of students get placed in developmental math classes, and often, these courses become a holding bin students cannot get out of. The Carnegie folks have worked primarily with community college instructors to re-think developmental math curricularly and pedagogically. It’s fascinating and important work.

My talk was about the relationship between structure and agency, how both contribute to inequalities in mathematics education. When we are teaching in a classroom, it is easy to see problems of inequality as they look locally: high enrollments in developmental math, over-representation of students coming from poverty and students of color, a sense of student apathy. To make progress, however, instructors can learn by linking the local to broader social processes: the maldistribution of qualified math teachers, STEM classrooms that are hostile environments to minoritized students, a K-12 curriculum that often reflects the institution of schooling more than what it means to do meaningful mathematics. I argued that if we frame these problems through what we see locally, we give ourselves, as teachers, less leverage to make progress on them. I shared two key concepts for linking these social processes to what we see in our classrooms: social risk and status. I have written about both of these (click the links if you are curious), but briefly, social risk refers to the threats people feel are posed to their status in a community while status describes the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability. Both of these ideas link the social process explanations for inequality to what teachers see in their classrooms locally.

Teachers can then work to design classrooms that reduce social risk by, in part, attending to status dynamics. In other words, to connect structure and agency, we need ways to think across scale and look at the social origins of problems too often narrated as individual issues. Instead of, for example, blaming students for being apathetic about mathematics learning, we need to recognize what their history has likely been in our current system and accept their apparent apathy as a reasonable response. Our task shifts from finger pointing (“My students just aren’t motivated!“) to having the productive challenge of honoring their experience while trying to change their ideas about math and learning.

In the end, then, structure can help us change agency in two ways. First, by recognizing that it is there, along with the social processes it holds in place, we can arrive at more productive framings of the problems we face locally. Second, we can leverage the structural designs in our classroom to invite students’ agency.

I have written about designing structures to promote agency before. If you don’t feel like reading that (I realize it’s summer!), maybe watch this video instead. It is quite a joy.

And don’t we all need more of that right now?


Why Meaningful Math Learning Matters

What Meaningfulness Means

Learning and schooling are not the same thing. There are children who are great learners but terrible students. These young people are full of ideas and questions, but they have not managed to connect their innate curiosity with their experiences in school. There are many possible reasons for this. Children may find school to be a hard place to inhabit, due to invisible expectations that leave them feeling alienated. Sometimes, school curriculum just seems irrelevant: their personal questions about the world do not find inroads in the work they are asked to do.
Although many parenting books extol children’s natural curiosity and emphasize its importance in their learning and development, schooling too often emphasizes compliance over curiosity. Thus, it is not surprising that children who are great learners and weak students have their antithesis: children who are great students but who are less invested in learning and sense making. Make no mistake: these students hit every mark of good organization, compliance, diligence, and timely work production, but they do not seek deep engagement with ideas. Given the freedom to develop a question or explore an idea, they balk and ask for more explicit directions. I have heard teachers refer to these children as “teacher-dependent.”
Too often, meaningfulness falls through this gap between learning and schooling. There is a fundamental contradiction at play: meaningfulness arises from and connects to children’s curiosity, yet “curious children” is not entirely synonymous with “successful students.” Meaningfulness comes about when students develop an appreciation for mathematical ideas. Rich and meaningful learning happens when students draw on prior knowledge and experiences to make sense of ideas and explore problems, invoke their own strategies, get to ask “what if…?”  In short, meaningful learning happens when students’ activity connects to their own curiosity. To make meaningfulness central to math teaching, then, teachers need to narrow the gap between being curious and being a good student.


Meaningfulness: When students connect their own curiosity and experience to ideas, thereby developing an interest in and appreciation for mathematical content.

Why Meaningfulness Matters

Every math teacher, at one one time or another, has been asked the question, “When are we going to use this?” While this question often gets cast as students’ resistance to learning, it can be productively reinterpreted as a plea for meaningfulness. When the hidden curriculum of math class –– the messages that are inadvertently relayed through classroom organization and activity –– consistently communicates that meaning does not matter, we end up with hordes of students who no longer reason when they are doing math. They instead focus on rituals, such as following the worked example, and cues, such as applying the last learned procedure to the current problem.
As researcher Sheila Tobias explained in her classic exploration of math anxiety, a lack of meaning exacerbates many students’ negative experiences learning mathematics. When math class emphasizes rituals and cues that rely on memorization over sense making, students’ own interpretations become worthless.

For instance, they memorize multiplication facts, and, in a search for meaning, they decide that multiplication makes things bigger. Then, they learn how to multiply numbers between 0 and 1. Their prior understanding of multiplication no longer works, so they might settle on the idea that mulitiplication intensifies numbers since it makes these fractional quantities even smaller. Finally, when they learn how to multiply negative numbers, all their ideas about multiplication become meaningless, leaving them completely at sea in their sense making. The inability to make meaning out of procedures leaves students grasping and anxious, as the procedures seem ever more arbitrary.
In contrast, when classrooms are geared toward supporting mathematical sense making, they reap multiple motivational benefits. First, students’ sense of ownership over their learning increases. Students see that multiplication can be thought of as repeated addition, the dimensions of a rectangle as related to its area, or the inverse of division. When they learn new types of multiplication, the procedures have a conceptual basis to expand on. Relatedly, their learning is more durable. Because they understand the meaning behind the mathematics they are learning, they are more likely to connect it to their own experiences. This, in turn, provides openings for their curiosity and questions. Beyond giving students opportunities for sense making, meaningful mathematics classrooms provide students chances to identify and explore their own problems. Indeed, in a systematic comparison of teacher-guided and student-driven problem solving, educational researchers Tesha Sengupta-Irving and Noel Enyedy found that the ownership, relevance, and opportunities to engage curiosity in student-driven problem solving supported stronger outcomes in student affect and engagement.[1]

The challenge, then, for teachers is how to help students engage in meaningful mathematical learning within the structures of schooling. I would love to hear your ideas about how to achieve this.

[1] Tesha Sengupta-Irving & Noel Enyedy (2014): Why Engaging in Mathematical Practices May Explain Stronger Outcomes in Affect and Engagement: Comparing Student-Driven With Highly Guided Inquiry, Journal of the Learning Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/10508406.2014.928214

Who Belongs in our Math Classrooms?

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation.  For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may have not felt welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academics may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense –– or perhaps it used to make sense when it was whole numbers and counting, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. They may have been demoralized by a standardized test score that deemed them below grade level. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math.” For still other students, they love the subject, but must contend with people who do not see them as fitting their ideas of a person who is good at math. They have to combat stereotypes to be seen as legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations by holding forth with their smartness even as others look on in dismay.

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

Why Belongingness Matters
When I go and observe in mathematics classrooms, I can usually ascertain students’ general sense of belongingness. What is their affect as they walk through the door? How warmly and personally do they greet the teacher and each other? Are they represented –– through math work or other means –– on what is posted on the walls?
All too often, I see students enter their math classrooms with a sense of gloom. Smiles disappear as they cross the threshold of the doorway. Their posture slumps. They sit at the back of the room or put their heads on their desks.They may even groan or launch into a litany of complaints. When I observe these student behaviors as a teacher, it signals that I have work to do to make children feel more welcomed and excited about spending their time with me learning mathematics.

Teachers’ relationships with students are an important source of of belongingness, but peers are equally (if not more) important. Even if a teacher welcomes each student with a smile and takes an interest in who they are, frequent insults or intimidation from other students can create a negative classroom climate. To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

During adolescence, children face the enormous task of developing a strong and stable sense of themselves. Although this identity development happens over the course of a lifetime, adolescence is distinct because it is when children are first able to think abstractly enough to grapple with both their own emerging self-understandings as well as how society views them. This leads to both a delightful self-awareness as well as a sometimes painful sense of self-consciousness for many students, as they are more sensitive to others’ perspectives and feedback. Necessarily, then, inclusive and inviting classrooms provide a place for this crucial developmental work, particularly in relationship to school in general and mathematics in particular.

What Gets in the Way of Belongingness
Although I generally avoid absolutes when it comes to describing good teaching, I will highlight a few common instructional practices that feed a negative classroom climate, thus working against belongingness. First, many math classrooms emphasize competition. Whether this comes from formal races, timed tests, or just students’ constant comparison of grades, competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others. This is problematic because there is typically one kind of smartness that leads students to “win” these competitions: quick and accurate calculation. To paraphrase mathematician John Allen Paulos, nobody tells you that you cannot be a writer because you are not a fast typist; yet we regularly communicate to students that they cannot be mathematicians because they do not compute quickly. While a competitive dynamic may be at play in other school subjects, it is especially toxic in math classrooms because students do not have other venues to explore and affirm their diverse mathematical talents.

Another contributor to negative classroom climate comes from devaluing who students are. This may come in many forms, some of which teachers may not realize. For instance, some teachers avoid using what is for them an unfamiliar (thus difficult-to-pronounce) name. Not only does this lead to fewer invitations to participate, it communicates to students that we are not comfortable with something that might make them different than us. Names are deeply personal, one of the first words students identify with: They often reflect home cultures and personal history. When teachers avoid them or change them without consent, they devalue something of who students are.

Likewise, when teachers problematically differentiate their treatment of students based on cultural styles, they can devalue who students are. For instance, educational researcher Ebony McGee studies successful students of color in STEM fields. She interviewed a Black chemistry major at a primarily White institution who reported that a White instructor avoided her when she dressed in a way often perceived by middle class teachers as “ghetto.” When she changed her clothing and hair style, he told her, “Now you actually look presentable. I bet you are making better grades too.” Similarly, in a research project I conducted, a female high school student concluded that her math teacher “didn’t like” her after the teacher emailed her mother that her skirts were “too short.” Adolescents use clothing to express themselves and their culture as a part of the identity work they engage in. Avoiding or rejecting them because of these forms of self-expression can further estrange them from the classroom or school. If concerns need to be raised, they should be done in a way that respects students’ self-expression.

Finally, teachers may alienate students by correcting the inconsequential. Although our job is to help students become educated people, when we correct the inconsequential, we may work against other goals of engagement and inclusion. Deciding what is inconsequential is, of course, a judgment call: context is everything. For instance, our standards for speech and language differ when students try to explain an idea they are in the midst of grappling with versus when they are preparing for a job interview. In the former situation, correct grammar is not the point, while in the second, it may matter a lot. If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.

The Best of the #MTBoS is Here!

Well, Tina and I didn’t plan it this way, but the publishing gods have given our little project a Pi Day release! We told you about it here, and now you can get your own copy for a good cause. 

Last year at Twitter Math Camp (TMC), participants were asked whether they paid their own way. Here was the show of hands:

(📷: @_levi_)

We know that there are some fantastic math teachers out there for whom the cost of TMC is prohibitive. We would love to have you join the fun and learning!

So please purchase a copy, give them as gifts to your colleagues, and re-tweet, re-post, and share!

Online preview (intro, table of contents with titles only, index, glossary):

Direct purchase (more of the money goes to the scholarship if you buy from here):

Amazon Paperback:

Amazon Kindle:

Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.