Thanks to the small group of folks followed and commented on my inaugural blog post. There’s truly nothing that fires me up like talking about the puzzle that is improving math teaching and learning. And yet I’ve been reticent to publish thoughts because then they are… well… published. Somehow that feels like “finished”.
Nothing set forth in this blog is meant to be presented as “finished”. Rather, I’m inviting company in wondering, trying, iterating and discussing how shifting one part of our practice might change possibility in the culture and outcomes of our classrooms.
My practice as a classroom instructional coach is certainly multi-dimensional, but my favorite part of it goes something like this:
I visit a teacher’s classroom and ask two fundamental questions:
- What’s going well?
- What’s bugging you?
This not a goal-setting protocol, but rather is a riff on the “what do you notice, what do you wonder?” approach to engaging students well in math classes – a philosophy that has similarly inspired all kinds of good work and interesting thinking. It’s an invitation for teachers to deeply engage in thinking about the doing of math teaching.
Here’s a description from The Math Forum’s site, introducing Notice / Wonder:
“We believe that when students become active doers rather than passive consumers of mathematics the greatest gains of their mathematical thinking can be realized. The process of sense-making truly begins when we create questioning, curious classrooms full of students’ own thoughts and ideas. By asking What do you notice? What do you wonder? we give students opportunities to see problems in big-picture ways, and discover multiple strategies for tackling a problem. Self-confidence, reflective skills, and engagement soar, and students discover that the goal is not to be “over and done,” but to realize the many different ways to approach problems.”
A riff that I’d love to hear the math ed community take up:
“We believe that when teachers become active doers rather than passive consumers of math instructional strategies, the greatest gains of their mathematical teaching can be realized. The process of sense-making truly begins when we create questioning, curious schools full of teachers’ own thoughts and ideas. By asking What’s going well? What’s bugging you? we give teachers opportunities to see instructional problems in big-picture ways, and discover multiple strategies for tackling an instructional problem. Self-confidence, reflective skills, and engagement soar, and teachers discover that the goal is not to be “certain,” but to realize the many different ways to approach problems in math instruction.”
On the best days, when my district can spare funding for after-school meetings, I have some time to dig into “what’s bugging” with a larger group of teachers… Deconstructing and examining the ‘bugging’ becomes the inspiration for our change ideas, which grow from collective frustration around the difference between our vision of what our classrooms could look like and the reality of the 45 minutes we’re in, where many days our tasks aren’t engaging enough, group conversations aren’t the quality we’re dreaming of, our toughest students aren’t motivated to even try when the problem doesn’t invite an immediately clear strategy.
Over the last five years, collaborative conversations about what bugs us have led to some really promising instructional routines – and to rethinking much of what and how we assess. However, our tinkering has also led us down dead-end roads. We’ve had uninspired lessons, checked-out kids, blank stares when we expected deep conversations. And much like the mistakes that our students learn from, we have learned from our worst days.
There are truly wonderful lessons to learn from reading inspiring blogs, published research, books and stories from the trenches of great math teaching. But nearly twenty years into this profession, I’m certain that we’re missing much in our systemic approach to school and in-service teacher improvement. At the core of the gap is a belief that teaching is not either/or… Teaching is science as well as art. Teaching needs inspiration as well as experimentation. Teaching benefits from the community and the accountability of community.
PLC time, in the trenches, too often turns into some version of book study, which places teachers in a passive role of replicator. Teachers will take a “way” to do business, implement it, then share with each-other whether it worked (spoiler alert – this is never universal and it always leads to hurt feelings). Much like the best parenting advice these days, where many of us are only consumers of expertise and never generators of it, we come to have deep-seeded doubt about our own innate efficacy.
We are spending an inordinate amount of time and money assessing educational efficacy through annual student outcomes. Then we can “know” how effective a teacher/program/textbook/schedule was, during a certain year with certain admin and certain students. Yet we know nothing about how good could have morphed into better for that group of folks, in that situation, at that time. We put a premium on assessing educators – we expect them to know. Yet what emphasis do we put on their learning? We have to scrape funds and organize towards having structured time for teaches to be learners – and often this is only universally supported for new or struggling educators.
We have lost the confidence in ourselves to tinker, the confidence in one another to promote tinkering. Sure, there are great answers out there – brilliant folks who are writing, presenting, promoting great ways to have great math classes. Yet we need more than great answers. We need a culture of learning. A culture of learning in our own work is NOT continuous improvement, because like our students, our own mistakes are integral and must be studied to the same extent as our successes. MTBoS has realized that answers to what bugs us might be better found, or at least reliably realized, in open-minded conversation with good company about what is happening and what is missing in our own classrooms. Here’s what’s bugging me: Why are we so reticent to replicate this approach in the world of teacher PD? Teachers, Coaches, Math Ed folks, your thoughts?