what does it mean to be a “low” math student?

Posted on: November 23rd, 2016 by jnovakowski 2 Comments

So typically on this blog I share stories of what is happening in Richmond classrooms and about professional learning experiences for Richmond educators. This post takes a different tone…one that I hope will provoke thinking and discussions about the intersection of language and students and math.

Here goes…

I am often engaged in conversations about mathematics teaching and learning where I hear from teachers, “I have so many low students,” and it makes me wonder what is meant by “low”. I am sure I have used the term myself in the past but I have been increasingly more aware of the impact of labels and language on not just the professional conversations we have but also on how this impacts our relationships with our students. I have begun to challenge teachers on their use of this term and stop them as they say it…”What exactly do you mean when you say ‘low’?” I don’t mean to put teachers on the spot or to to make them feel uncomfortable in our conversations but I think the language we use in conversations about students is really important and we need to be mindful about this.

My prickliness about how we talk about children was amplified when I had my own children, both of whom have their own personal strengths and stretches. I can’t imagine how I would feel, or how my sons would feel, if they were ever described as “low”. What impact does this language of  ”low” have on our students as learners and on ourselves in our role of teacher? How does this thinking affect our mindset about learning?

So what does it mean to be a “low” math student…

Does it mean that the student does not have an understanding of foundational concepts in mathematics? Did the student not have access to teaching at his or her just right level? Was the student absent from school or ill for extended periods of time? Was the student not assessed thoroughly to inform instruction? How can the student be supported to gain foundational concepts and confidence in mathematics? What structures are in place in your class and in your school to support core foundational understanding in mathematics?

Does it mean that the student has difficulty learning math because of memory, health, attention, behaviour or learning difficulties? When in class, does the student have difficulty paying attention, focusing, sitting? Does the student seem unable to retain information the way it is being provided? Does the student have behaviours that are affecting his or her learning and engagement? What practices, materials and structures are in place in your classroom or school that provide choices and adaptations in time/pacing, materials, place/learning environment, quantity of work output expected and depth of content knowledge?

Does it mean that the student has a different story than his or her classmates? Has the student had breakfast? slept? Is the student living in a safe home environment? Does the student have to care for siblings or parents? Does the student need to work to add to the family income? Does the student have regular absences? Why is that?  What might be affecting his or her image of self as a learner and as community member in your classroom? As teachers, are we acknowledging and checking our place of privilege and power and how this might be affecting our students? What is the student’s story and how might this be affecting his or her learning of mathematics? What supports does this student in your classroom and school need to be successful?

Does it mean that the student does not have access to resources to support learning and success at school? Does the student have the tools and resources (human and physical) he or she needs at home to support learning? Are assignments and studying accessible and equitable for all students regardless of their home or financial situations? What supports can the teacher and school provide so all students have equitable access to the resources needed to support their learning? Afterschool homework clubs or peer tutoring? Choices in assignment and homework formats?

Does it mean that the student’s written work, homework and quiz and test scores do not indicate achievement of learning standards? Is written work or practice not completed during class time? Are homework assignments not turned in or completed, or attempted? Does the student seem to understand the mathematics during performance tasks and class discussions but is not successful on quizzes and tests? What different opportunities are students provided to communicate their thinking and learning? (It does not have to be written down to “count”!)

In all of the above scenarios, it may seem that I suggest that it is the teachers’ and schools’ responsibility to ensure student success in mathematics. Well, it mostly is – that is our job. Of course we need to have students and parents as part of this story, but when they may not seem to be, we, as a system, need to think about how to bring them alongside instead of using fixed terms such as “low” as an excuse, and explanation or a dismissal of responsibility.

How can we re-frame how we talk about our students and how we talk about learning mathematics?  There is a strong movement in mathematics education coming from various voices including Dr. Jo Boaler of Stanford University. This movement is based on the belief and conviction that ALL children can learn mathematics. Dr. Boaler’s work around mathematical mindsets is shifting how educators, parents and students think about the learning of mathematics. More information can be found here.

I attended a Learning Forward dinner event at the end of April and one of the question prompts the secondary teachers from Surrey gave us to provoke discussion was:

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This issue of deficit language resonates with me and I think by re-framing the language we use will re-frame how we see ourselves as educators and how we see the students in our classrooms.

Inspired by Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert and the four fundamental questions of the NOII, I wonder how many of our students feel that their math teachers believe that they can learn? We know its important that teachers convey that they care for their students and that they believe they can be successful. How does our language need to be re-framed in our classrooms so our students believe this to be true?

Instead of describing our students as “low”, what different language could we use? Learning. Developing. Growing. Competent. Full of promise and potential. How does using strength-based language shift our conversations and interactions with our students and with each other as professionals?

My hope is that we can describe our students as curious and engaged mathematical thinkers and learners – what is the story that needs to unfold in our classrooms if this is our goal?

Math matters. Language matters.

~Janice

With thanks to Faye Brownlie, Shelley Moore, Jane MacMillan, Lisa Schwartz and Sarah Loat for their feedback and contributions to my thinking for this post.

2 Responses

  1. Diane Macqueen says:

    Thank you for this. It totally resonates for me. Out with deficit based language! After our conversation today, I really feel we should just have a 3 point scale – probably for all subjects – developing (still working on), mastery, and extending. It seems so much work, that is of little value, to figure out a 5 point scale in particular. As well so many rubrics are deficit based. What a wonderful message it would be if we could say to our students- I believe in you – you may take a different amount of time to get there than your classmate, but you will get there, and our classroom community will help you.

  2. Thank you for this very thoughtful and direct post Janice. I agree that the term “low” is thrown around far too often, especially in relation to math. All students need to believe in their ability to learn, and be given the appropriate access to materials that support this learning. This is the teacher’s responsibility. I look forward to having similar discussions with my staff as we continue to grow together.