Building Teaching as a Responsive Profession

Those of you who spend real or virtual time with me have heard me talk about how hard it is to talk about teaching.

One frequently mentioned issue is that, unlike other professions, teaching does not have its own technical language. Professions like aviation and medicine have common professional terms that highlight important features of critical situations and guide practice. In aviation, for instance, pilots identify wind patterns to aid in landing planes. Likewise, surgeons have cataloged human anatomy and surgical procedures so the protocol for appendectomies can be named and routinized, with appropriate modifications for anatomical variations such as hemophilia or obesity. But a strong headwind in China is similar to a strong headwind in Denmark; a hemophiliac in Brazil will require more or less the same modifications as a hemophiliac in Egypt.

In contrast, an urban school may not be the same as an urban school a few blocks away, nor an ADHD kid the same as an ADHD kid in the same classroom. Although such terms attempt to invite descriptions about particular teaching situations, the language often relies on stereotyped understandings. Everyday categories like an urban school, an honors class, or an ADHD kid seldom work to describe teaching situations adequately to help teachers address the challenges they face. Words characterizing social spaces and human traits are inherently ambiguous and situated in particular social, cultural and historical arrangements.

The variation teachers encounter cannot always be codified, as they often are in aviation and surgery. In fact, in the United States, when educational situations are codified, they often presume the “neutral” of White, English-speaking, and middle class culture. However, the widespread practice of glossing cultural particulars, or only seeing them as deviants from a norm, reduces teachers’ ability to teach well. From Shirley Brice Heath’s  seminal work comparing home literacy practices in White and African American communities to Annette Lareau’s identification of social class-specific parenting patterns, we see time and again that children from non-dominant groups frequently encounter schooling expectations that are incongruous with their home cultures, often to the detriment of their learning. Conversely, when instructional practices align with children’s home cultures, teachers more are more effective at cultivating students’ learning. (See, for a few well documented examples, this work by Kathryn Au and Alice Kawakami, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Teresa McCarty.)

Culturally responsive pedagogies are, by definition, highly particular and have been documented to yield better student learning. To communicate sufficiently, professional language for teaching would need to encompass this complexity, avoiding simplistic –– perhaps common sense –– stereotypes about children, classrooms, schools, or communities.

How, then, can we develop shared professional language for teaching and build professionals responsive to the children they serve? I have some ideas I will share in another post.

Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at The Willows School

I am honored to be presenting tomorrow at the Reinventing Mathematics Symposium at the Willows School in Culver City, CA.

My workshop is on Playing with Mathematical Ideas: Strategies for Building a Positive Classroom Climate. Students often enter math class with fear and trepidation. Yet we know that effective teaching engages their ideas. How do we lower the social risk of getting students to share to help them understand mathematics more deeply? I will share what I have learned from accomplished mathematics teachers who regularly succeed at getting students to play with mathematical ideas as a way of making sense.

In my workshop, I will develop the concepts of status and smartness, as well as share an example of “playful problem solving.” Here is the Tony De Rose video we watched, with the question: How is Tony De Rose mathematically smart? If he were a 7th grader in your classroom, what chances would he have to show it?

Usually teachers like  resources, so I have compiled some here.


Bellos, A. & Harriss, E. (2015). Snowflake, Seashell, Star: Colouring Adventures in Wonderland. Canongate Books Ltd; Main edition

Childcraft Encyclopedia (1987). Mathemagic. World Book Incorporated.

Jacobs, H. (1982). Mathematics: A Human Endeavor. W.H. Freeman & Co Publishers.

Pappas, T. (1993). The Joy of Mathematics (2nd Edition). World Wide Publishing.

Van Hattum, S. (2015). Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. Natural Math

Weltman, A. (2015). This is Not a Maths Book: A Smart Art Activity Book. Ivy Press.

Blogs that Feature Playful Mathematics

Math in Your Feet Blog

Talking Math With Your Kids

Visual Patterns

Math Munch

Some Inspiring Ignite* Talks that Give Ideas about Teaching Playfully

*Ignite talks are 5 minute long presentation with 20 slides and with the slides advancing automatically every 15 seconds. It’s the presentation equivalent of a haiku or sonnet.

Peg Cagle, What Architecture Taught Me About Teaching

Justin Lanier, The Space Around the Bar

Jasmine Ma, Mathematics on the Move: Re-Placing Bodies in Mathematics

Max Ray, Look Mom! I’m a Mathematician

There are tons more. The Math Forum does a great job of getting outstanding math educators to share their work in this series of talks.

Please feel free to add other good resources in the comments section!