First, Do No Harm

I have often wondered if teachers should have some form of a Hippocratic Oath, reminding themselves each day to first, do no harm.

Since the network of relationships in classrooms is so complex, it is often difficult to discern what we may do that causes children harm. Most of us have experienced the uncertainty of teaching, those dilemmas endemic to the classroom. Was it the right decision to stay firm on an assignment deadline for the child who always seems to misplace things, after giving several extensions? Or was there something more going on outside of the classroom that would alter that decision? Why did a student, who is usually amendable to playful teasing, suddenly storm out of the room today in the wake of such an interaction?

What I have arrived at is that there are levels of harm. The harm I describe in the previous examples can be recovered if teachers have relational competence — that is, the lines of communication are open with their students so that children can share and speak up if a teacher missteps.

What I am coming to realize is that mathematics teachers have a particular responsibility when it comes to doing no harm. Mathematics, for better or worse, is our culture’s stand-in subject for being smart. That is, if you are good at math, you must be smart. If you are not good at math, you are not truly smart.

I am not saying I believe that, but it is a popular message. I meet accomplished adults all the time who confess their insecurities stemming from their poor performance in mathematics classes.

Here is an incomplete list of common instructional practices that, in my view, do harm to students’ sense of competence:

1. Timed math tests

Our assessments communicate to students what we value. Jo Boaler recently wrote about the problems with these in terms of mathematical learning. Students who do well on these tend to see connections across the facts, while students who struggle tend not to. But if timed tests are the primary mode of assessment, then the students who struggle do not get many opportunities to develop those connections.

2. Not giving partial credit

Silly mistakes are par for the course in the course of demanding problem solving. Teachers who only use multiple choice tests or auto-grading do not get an opportunity to see students’ thinking. A wrong answer does not always indicate entirely wrong thinking. Students who are prone to getting the big idea and missing the details are regularly demoralized in mathematics classes.

Even worse, however, is …

3. Arbitrary grading that discounts sensemaking

Recently, a student I know had a construction quiz in a geometry class. The teacher marked her construction as “wrong” because she made her arcs below the line instead of above it, as the teacher had demonstrated. This teacher also counts answers as incorrect if the SAS Theorem is written as the SAS Postulate in proofs. Since different textbooks often name triangle congruence properties differently, this is an arbitrary distinction. This practice harms students by valuing imitation over sensemaking.

4. Moving the lesson along the path of “right answers”

Picture the following interaction:

Teacher:    “Can anyone tell me which is the vertical angle here?”

Layla:        “Angle C?”

Teacher:     “No. Robbie?”
Robbie:       “Angle D?”

Teacher: Yes. So now we know that Angle D also equals 38˚…

That type of interaction, called initiation-response-evaluation, is the most common format of mathematical talk in classrooms. Why is it potentially harmful? Let’s think about what Layla learned. She learned that she was wrong and, if she was listening, she learned that Angle D was the correct answer. However, she never got explicit instruction on why Angle C was incorrect. Over time, students like Layla often withdraw their participation from classroom discussions.

On the other hand, teachers who work with Layla’s incorrect answer –– or even better yet, value it as a good “non-example” to develop the class’s understanding of vertical angles –– increase student participation and mathematical confidence. And, they are doing more to grow everybody’s understanding.

What are other kinds of teaching practices that stand to “harm” students?