By the time students get to high school, they have pretty solidified ideas about who is smart, who is not, and what it means to be smart. These judgments are based on previous achievement as well as stereotypes related to race, class, popularity, and gender. If you observe almost any math classroom, you will notice that some students’ ideas are sought out and immediately taken up whereas others’ are ignored. In fact, there are many students whose mathematical ideas are not heard at all.
One of the invisible forces in any classroom is status. Status has to do with how competent a student feels and how that competence is perceived by his or her peers (Horn, 2012). While mathematical competence is about a student’s ability to complete a variety of mathematical tasks, status is about the perception of that competence. We have probably all seen some of the discrepancies between what a student can do and what a student feels they can do. Even more critically, students make these judgments about their peers. By being aware of how status plays out in the classroom, we can employ specific teacher moves to shift those power dynamics and disrupt some of the problematic and inaccurate notions about who can be successful at math.
We’re going to look at teacher moves in two categories:
These are of course not the only two ways we can categorize this equity-focused aspect of our work, but I find it to be a helpful framework in thinking about the practical steps we can take to disrupt normalized patterns in our math classrooms.
How we run our classrooms sends important messages about what we believe about students’ math capabilities and the discipline of math itself. By reordering a traditional lesson format and having students start by working together in groups, we communicate that students are responsible for and capable of constructing mathematical understanding. We position students as sense-makers and we position the work of learning math as a collaborative endeavor. This marks a shift in power dynamics by highlighting students’ agency and competence instead of reinforcing a reliance on the teacher as the sole source of knowledge.
Also consider who you are inviting to present at the board. Physical location alone sends a signal about power. Standing in the front of the class at the whiteboard puts students in a position of authority. Make sure a variety of student voices are given this opportunity and that these students differ from day to day.
Other actions that shift power dynamics are:
While our words play a part in shaping our classroom culture, they also have the power to elevate particular students’ status by highlighting their mathematical contribution publicly. Much of the phrases we will look at are ones that can be used in the debrief portion of the lesson. They are words used to facilitate a discussion and play an important role in deciding who gets to hold the floor.
How we orient the class’ work around that particular student’s ideas is equally important. We can do this by having someone in the class paraphrase the student’s ideas before they evaluate it as right or wrong: “Without saying if you agree or disagree, can someone restate Ni’asjia’s argument?”. The message we’re sending is that this student has important ideas that are worth taking into consideration, regardless of if the solution is actually correct or not. Maybe the student is providing a really persuasive argument, or the student is using rich mathematical vocabulary, or maybe the student thought about the problem in a unique way with a different strategy. We have to broaden our definition of what is mathematical and whose ideas are worth sharing. Then we have to let the class respond to the student’s ideas and not just evaluate it ourselves. After the class understands the student’s argument, they are invited and expected to ask questions of the students. This is where we do the important work of moving students towards the goals of the lesson through inquiry and discourse.
Here are some power-shifting words you can use:
It is critical to consider the intentional and sometimes unintentional messages we communicate to students through our words and actions. Once we are aware of these messages, we can make intentional decisions to counteract them (or promote them) with some of these specific teacher moves. Which ones will you try this week?
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Horn, I. S. (2012). Strength in numbers: Collaborative learning in secondary mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.