Seeing Status in the Classroom

In my last post, I discussed the idea of social status and its consequences for classroom teaching and learning. I was introducing you to my way of thinking about a concept and making a case for its importance in teaching.

Some of the comments and questions I got in response involved specifics about how it plays out in the classroom. In response, I will specify further how status actually looks in mathematics classrooms.

Recall that status makes for hierarchies in the classroom. Students who are perceived as smarter or more socially valued get more opportunities to speak and be heard. Almost all kids catch on to the order of things.

Status hierarchies manifest in classroom conversations and participation patterns, often leading to status problems, or the breakdown of mathematical communication based on status rather than the substance of mathematical thinking. Before we talk about remediating status problems, let’s clarify how teachers can see status problems in their classrooms.

head on desk


One of the most important and tangible status assessments teachers can do is ask who speaks and who is silent. Some students might dominate a conversation, never soliciting or listening to others’ ideas. These are probably high-status students. Some students may make bids to speak that get steamrolled or ignored. Some students may seem to simply disappear when a classroom conversation gains momentum. These are probably low-status students.

If you want to get a better handle on the participation patterns in your classroom, give a colleague a copy of your seating chart and have this person sit in your classroom. He or she can check off who speaks during a class session. This simple counting of speaking turns (without worrying about content or length for the moment) can give you a sense of dominance and silence.

Surprisingly, teachers’ impressions of speaking turns are sometimes not accurate, so this exercise can help sort out participation patterns. I have seen this in my own work with teachers and in earlier research. Back in the early 1980s, researcher Dale Spender videotaped teachers in high school classrooms, many of whom were “consciously trying to combat sexism” by calling on girls and boys equally. Upon reviewing the tapes and tallying the distribution of participation, the teachers were surprised that their perceived “overcorrection” of the unequal attention had only amounted to calling on the girls 35 percent of the time. The teachers reported that “giving the girls 35 percent of our time can feel as if we are being unfair to the boys.” Although (we hope) the gender ratios in this research may be dated, the phenomenon of teacher misperception still holds.

Teachers attending to participation patterns can use certain moves to encourage silent students to speak. For example, teachers might introduce a question with “Let’s hear from somebody who hasn’t spoken today.” High-status students sometimes assert their standing by shooting their hands up when questions are posed, letting everybody know how quickly they know the answer. To get around this, teachers can pose a difficult question prefaced with the instructions, “No hands, just minds. I want all of you to think about this for the next minute. Look up at me when you think you know and I will call on somebody.” By allowing thinking time, teachers value thoughtfulness over speed and have more opportunity to broaden participation. Eye contact between students and teacher is a subtle cue and will not disrupt others’ thinking in the way that eagerly waving hands often do. Finally, teachers can make clear that they value partial answers as well as complete ones. When posing tough questions, they can say, “Even if you only have a little idea, tell us so we can have a starting place. It doesn’t need to be all worked out.”


Part of effective participation in classroom conversations requires listening and being heard. As a follow-up to an initial assessment of participation patterns, having an observer pay attention to failed bids for attention or to ideas that get dropped during a conversation might be useful.

Of course, part of the complexity of teaching is deciding which ideas to pursue and which ideas to table. But the choice of whether to entertain students’ thinking communicates something to them about the value of their ideas, which ties directly to status. Students whose ideas are consistently taken up will have one impression about the value of their ideas; students whose ideas are consistently put off will have another idea entirely.

Teachers can model listening practices during class discussions, directing students to listen to each other. By showing students that rough draft thinking— emergent, incompletely articulated ideas—is normal, teachers can help develop a set of clarifying questions that they ask students, and eventually, that students ask each other. For example, a teacher might say, “I’m not sure I follow. Could you please show me what you mean?” Saying this makes confusion a normal part of learning and communicates an expectation that students can demonstrate their thinking.

Body Language

During class, where are students focused? Are they looking at the clock or at the work on the table? Students who have their heads on the desk, hoodies pulled over their faces, or arms crossed while they gaze out a window are signaling nonparticipation. In small-group conversations, their chairs may be pulled back or their bodies turned away from the group. Body language can tell teachers a lot about students’ engagement in a conversation.

Teachers’ expectations for participation can include expectations about how students sit. “I want to see your eyes on your work, your bodies turned to your tables.”

Organization of Materials and Resources

If students cannot see a shared problem during group work or put their hands on manipulatives, they cannot participate. If fat binders or mountains of backpacks obstruct their views of shared materials, they cannot participate. As with body language, teachers can make their expectation for the organization of materials explicit. “No binders or backpacks on your desks. All hands on the manipulatives.”

Inflated Talk about Self and Others

Certain phrases or attitudes can be defeating and signal status problems. Adolescents often engage in teasing insults with each other, but such talk might become problematic in the classroom. Scrutinize judgments about other students’ intelligence or the worthiness of their contributions. The statement “You always say such dumb things!” signals a status problem. “Gah! Why do you always do that?” might be more ambiguous. Teachers need to listen carefully and send clear messages about the importance of students treating each other with respect. “We disagree with ideas, not people” might be a helpful way to communicate this value.

Negative self-talk can be just as harmful. It not only reinforces students’ impressions of themselves but also broadcasts these to others. “I’m so bad at math!” should be banned in the classroom. Give students other ways to express frustration: “I don’t get this yet.” The word yet is crucial because it communicates to students that their current level of understanding is not their endpoint. In fact, several teachers I know post YET on their walls so that any time a student makes a claim about not being able to do something, the teacher simply gestures to the word YET to reinforce the expectation that they will learn it eventually.

The converse of the negative self-talk issue also exists. If a student defends an idea only on the basis of his or her high status, this is a problem. Arguments should rest on mathematical justification, not social position. “Come on! Listen to me, I got an A on the last test” is not a valid warrant and should not be treated as one. By emphasizing the need for “becauses” or “statements and reasons” in mathematical discussions, teachers can winnow away arguments that rest on status.

I’d love to hear some of the ways you see and address status problems in your classroom. Please share freely below.

Once again, much of this text comes from my book Strength in Numbers.



15 thoughts on “Seeing Status in the Classroom

  1. Today a very talented girl offered a nearly correct argument, but messed up an important but relatively minor aspect. One of the boys voiced a disagreement, but put it in a disrespectful way: “What Judith doesn’t understand…”

    I think that there was a status problem turning its head here.

    One of the perverse things I find about negotiating status issues is that it’s rarely productive for me to tackle them head on. It’s not really helpful for me to defend a student, because then I’m signalling that student’s weakness to the entire class. If she needs me to defend her, then what does that say about her?

    In the moment, what I did was turn my attention entirely to Judith, in an attempt to show that what she had to say was interesting and mathematically rich. Later in class I was lucky — Judith had a fantastic idea, and I was able to give her the floor to share it.

    But I’m sure I could have handled that better.


    • Maybe introduce a norm in your classroom, “Disagree with ideas, not people”? Part of what students have an opportunity to learn is how to give feedback and disagree respectfully. It’s hard for me to know, not knowing the dynamics and the kids, what was going on, but I am assuming you had a lot more cues and could see evidence that he was putting Judith in her place a little bit.

      I think your response was a good one. You let Judith know that her ideas are worthwhile, both in the moment in later in class.

      Part of what is hard/interesting about teaching with our attention to the social dynamics is that we never get it exactly right, we always have new puzzles to think about. But we do get better as we get new experiences and start to recognize patterns over time.

      Thanks for sharing, Michael.


  2. I agree with Michael that knowing how to handle status issues in the moment is really tricky for me. Does anyone else openly discuss status and its role in learning? I keep meaning to try a Harkness circle model because my students are familiar with it from their Humanities classes in which participation patterns are discussed and there is a rotating job during discussions of an observer who records participation and gives feedback to the class.


    • I think seeing status issues in the moment is tricky, but you can get better by making it part of your reflection. Michael does a lovely job here in re-thinking the interaction with Judith in terms of status. Could status been a part of the story in this interaction? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but a lot of kids’ fears in math class come down to a fear of looking dumb if they have a history of low achievement — and of losing their status as “smart” if they don’t.

      I think attending to it, recognizing that it’s there, is a good place to start. Part of why I wrote up the things you can actually see in the classroom in kids’ body language and interaction was to move it beyond the realm of a nice theoretical idea into a usable tool for solving teaching problems and puzzling over those interactions.

      Thanks for the comment, Anna. Now I am hungry for borscht.


      • I guess my question is about the benefit of addressing status issues more subtly, as you and Michael suggest, vs talking about them directly with students and making status an issue that the class needs to address head-on for reasons of equity and learning.


      • I hope you know that when I say, “It depends” I am not being evasive. It really does: some kids thrive on that kind of reflections, some teachers’ rapport is strong enough to effectively facilitate, etc. etc.

        I remember seeing a video of Deborah Ball talking to third graders about how do you decide when to change your mind when you disagree with someone. It was pretty amazing. The kids had a lot of ideas about what would and wouldn’t make them change their mind. It worked beautifully.

        I think that is part of the work that the “YET” sign does too: it signals a stance that everybody can learn these ideas.

        So much to talk about here. I will keep posting.


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  9. Last summer, in two intensive 1-week courses for rising 8th graders at BEAM, I experimented with using democracy as an organizing principle in the class, especially in terms of conducting mathematical discussions. I haven’t really written about it yet, although I’ve started to write about the underlying philosophy.

    I didn’t do this with the intention of creating a framework for addressing status problems in class, but for broader reasons. However, one of the pleasant surprises was that it gave me a very gentle way to intervene into certain kinds of status dynamics that previously I didn’t have good tools for (e.g. for which interventions based on the concept of “respect” overly blunt / insufficiently surgical).

    Here was the memorable success. A student said something mathematically valid but a little condescending in tone to another student during a mathematical conversation. I said, “you’re saying something interesting, but you’re saying it in a way that makes it sound like you’re the teacher and she’s the student, or maybe you’re the parent and she’s the child. In a democratic society, you’re equals. So see if you can say the same thing but speaking to an equal.” The kid totally took me up on it. I think he liked being “educated in the ways of democratic discourse” as it were.

    I memorably missed an opportunity to do the same thing the next week with a different group of kids. There was a student (call him A) who I thought was the lowest-status kid in the class in that he almost never ventured a contribution to discussions and he found the work the most challenging. All week I was trying to encourage him to participate, make space for him, make it safe for him, etc. Toward the end of the week, another student B was presenting a thought to the class, which did not totally make sense but was interesting. A came alive to tell B that what he was doing didn’t make sense. This would have been the perfect opportunity to apply the above intervention (“you’re saying that as though you’re the teacher and he’s the student; try to say the same thing but equal to equal: ‘I don’t see how that can be true because X, what about that?'”), but I didn’t say anything because I was so happy he was participating mathematically. I regret this. I felt a little uncomfortable at the time about letting the tone slide, but it seemed in the moment like a reasonable judgement aimed at not interfering with his participation, which I had been hoping and working for all week, and therefore perceived as delicate. Later I learned that, outside of the class, A had sometimes socially bullied B during the program. This recast A’s sudden and surprising contribution to class as part of his bullying, and made my judgement call seem less reasonable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Teaching is so hard. We are always operating with incomplete information. There were two competing goods here: A’s math participation (yay!) and his attitude toward B (boo!). Magdalene Lampert, in her book “Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching,” articulates this type of dilemma as a continuous problem teachers have to solve.

      My hope is that you are kind to yourself for not getting this just right in that moment, but use it as a launching point to ponder, “How can I acknowledge a child’s much wanted participation and still hold him accountable to my class’s democratic norms?” One possibility: “Wow, A! That is a great observation! I love hearing your ideas. It’s important though that we find ways to give respectful feedback to B.” Then, this might help you plan to have things like sentence frames for disagreement in your classroom.

      This is why teaching is so endlessly fascinating and forever full of puzzles. Thanks for sharing this really interesting example.


  10. What you said in this comment really resonated with me, “a lot of kids’ fears in math class come down to a fear of looking dumb if they have a history of low achievement — and of losing their status as “smart” if they don’t.”

    I’ve done surveys in my class the last two years to find out why students don’t raise their hands and participate. I do A LOT of notice/wonder, WODB, and other open-ended math problems that DON’T have wrong answers. Despite that work, the number one reason students (in my 6th and 7th grade math classes) said they didn’t raise their hand was either because they didn’t feel like they knew the answer OR because they were afraid of saying something wrong. It’s a lot of work to undo that right/wrong thinking that students get about math from their prior classes (in my case, often their elementary schools), and I’m still figuring out how to support students in being less fearful of that.

    The last few years, I’ve worked really hard at emphasizing the culture of convincing our skeptics and that mistakes bring learning (building on the work of Jo Boaler’s norms), but I was working in a school that tracked heavily (and was selective just to get in!), and I found that while some of the students were willing to “buy in” to the ideals I was putting forth, students who considered themselves stellar or outstandingly smart were often most reluctant to give up their status to this community. I like the idea Ben poses about democracy, and I wonder about the role of community building so students don’t see themselves in competition with each other but rather as assets to each other’s learning.


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