“What if students aren’t ready?”


We’ve all seen this before on Facebook and laughed internally. But one practice in our classrooms proves we aren’t so far beyond this as we’d like to think. It’s happened to all of us – You have a great idea for an engaging and authentic problem about similarity! Or about writing equations! Or…[fill in the blank]!

There’s just one problem. You know that your students have arrived in your classroom without all of the prior knowledge hoped for at their current grade level. A student gives you a blank look when you ask about scale factor or about how to solve a proportion. Or a student can’t articulate what a variable represents. Or…[fill in the blank]. Sound familiar? We’re left lamenting, “What if my students aren’t ready?.”

My admission:

We have all experienced this in some form or another. It is daunting to present students with a problem at grade level when you know that for many (or even most) students you can’t draw on the appropriate prior knowledge. Our natural instinct is to pause, review what should be prior knowledge, and then re-engage in the work at grade level.

My ask:

I ask that you present your great problem ideas to all of your students and allow them to identify and ask for the learning they need. Our most successful math teachers in the New Tech Network fight the natural instinct to front-load needed skills, and instead present the problem at grade level to all students first. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I ask you also try to fight your natural urge as well.

The “why”:

Students who arrive lacking basic skills do not show up this way because they have never been taught those skills. Quite the contrary, they likely have been formally taught those skills at least twice and perhaps had some remediation on top of that. Even with potentially three passes at these skills, they didn’t ‘stick’. They didn’t make enough sense to students for them to be able to call upon that knowledge when necessary in your course. And in all reality, a fourth pass at practicing that skill in the same way likely won’t be successful either. You must strategically change the way you teach that skill, and provide context for why that skill matters, to change a student’s understanding of that skill. Change the teaching/learning method to change the learning/understanding result.

Students who arrive in your classroom also are likely lacking a mathematical mindset, or even the mindset that they can be successful in a math class. The importance of a student’s mindset about his/her ability to learn a skill overwhelmingly outweighs current knowledge of the actual skill itself. If a student doesn’t believe she can learn, you’re sunk before you’ve even begun. But a student who is willing to engage in the great problem you want to do, and who believes it is worthwhile and is smart to ask questions? Yes, foster that! If you present your students with challenging problems, and with the scaffolding to support them, you are sending the not-so-subtle message that you believe your kids are ready for real mathematics. Please let your students see the real and beautiful and connected math we so appreciate. If you let your students engage, coach them how to engage, and support them as they struggle, the results might be surprising to you. And they’ll certainly be rewarding.


GMD Conversation: Reducing Status to Improve Collaboration

I’m excited to chat with the Global Math Department on January 12th, 2016 about reducing status issues in math classrooms in an effort to improve collaboration. This post will serve as a home for the slide deck we used to guide our time, and a few additional links and resources!


Presentation Description

Collaboration is a powerful tool to help students build knowledge together and deepen their understanding of math practice and content standards. But this collaboration is not innate for many students who enter our classrooms. Collaboration must be explicitly and purposefully taught, scaffolded, and reinforced. Not only that, but we must be aware of and strategically combat status issues in our classrooms that stand in the way of equitable student learning. Let’s chat practical ideas about norms, task design, and assessment strategies that will position all of our students to grow as math learners together!


Resources from and for the presentation

  • A prior blog post of mine titled “No one of us alone is as smart as all of us together”

Please feel free to comment here or to reach out via twitter @ReadySetBrette if you have additional questions or would like a thought partner about reducing status to improve collaboration.