Coaching through wondering (AKA what’s bugging you?)

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:

  1. What’s going well?
  2. 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?

Author: Joanna Burt-Kinderman

Math teacher, coach, designer and dreamer, working in rural WV

5 thoughts on “Coaching through wondering (AKA what’s bugging you?)”

  1. 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.

    You nail it! This is so good, such a good point and so well said.

    Why don’t we have a culture of learning? Ahh this is a question I think about all the time.

    I think part of the problem is that teachers have a highly idealistic culture. This highly idealistic culture asks us to do great things with our students: to help them become independent problem solvers, to help each and every child see themselves in a very difficult discipline, to help them (as Deborah Ball says) learn math in such a way that they’ll ‘stop killing each other.’

    These are high stakes! And because ideals are either adopted or not, professional learning often comes down to urging an audience to accept the burden of these ideals. (Or, sometimes, not to.)

    Teaching, however, rarely lives up to these ideals. Do we feel comfortable taking our lived reality seriously? Whatever our ideal-ideals happen to be, do we feel comfortable talking about our everyday-ideals, the things we sincerely hope (and sometimes expect) to frequently happen as a result of our teaching?

    Maybe not. And maybe we can’t talk about learning until we’re able to feel that our lived reality is not less-than in some way.

    That’s where I’m at right now, though admittedly my thoughts are rough and sort of conspiracy-theoryish. The question you ask is so much better than any answer.

    Loving your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well you have made my day, good sir! I don’t yet have the networks to have robust conversation (though I certainly yearn for them), and I certainly feel in the realm of an old dog attempting new tricks in my first foray into joining blog/tweet world. Would that you could imagine my joy upon feedback from one of my heroes of thoughtful writing about math teaching.

      Our reality (I believe) becomes “not less-than” when we turn our learning mirrors on ourselves. If we can convince ourselves that professional learning should not be about accepting proffered ideals, but instead about messily experimenting with them… If we can advance the idea that we should not be so darn certain.

      I want to turn this blog into a “here’s what bugs me…” opportunity to get conversation and tinkering launched on a wider scale than my own WV backyard. We’ve done some righteous work here and have developed a small set of what we believe to be promising instructional routines and moves. But we need company to grow, test, tinker and refine.
      I’m going to start, next week, with the first case of a classroom routine that was collectively developed around a teacher saying “what bugs me is that kids don’t have good math conversation during group work”. Hope you’ll stay tuned! Super grateful for the read and feedback! JBK


  2. “Here’s what’s bugging me: Why are we so reticent to replicate this approach in the world of teacher PD?”

    I sometimes think about the marvel that is the International Space Station. It seems like it’s up there gently floating above us but in reality that sucker has massive inertia, to the tune of 17,500 miles per hour!

    I think there’s an analog here to education. It’s not that we’re reticent. It’s that there’s an enormous amount of cultural inertia maintaining the status quo. Look beyond our walls of education and we’ll see that’s the same with any organization. Organizational change is very, very hard. If I asked you to think of organizations that have changed or turned themselves around, you may come up with one or a few and I bet I know what they are. They are examples that are celebrated because what they accomplished is so atypical.

    So it’s hard, really hard, but I see good things in your approach. I’ve found success asking a variation of the two questions you use (I find usually asking the first question and letting them riff often leads to the second without prompting). What I like about this approach is it’s human. It’s what I think we often try do with our students in our own classrooms: build safety (psychological) by listening to understand. It seems by doing that you’ve then found ways to work *with* your colleagues to learn together. That’s a great way to build a culture of learning.

    I strongly believe that change is personal. Positive or negative, it’s a choice someone makes for themselves. It can’t be mandated, directed, or delivered via PD. So if you’re looking for what to do next, keep doing what you’re doing. There’s no magic macro level fix. There’s the hard, personal work you’re doing.

    Thanks for sharing and great connection to “notice/wonder.” I’d never thought about it like that before.


    1. Wonder if part of the inertia is related to the structure of top-down management… I agree with you re: change being personal, but we are all on the “space station”, and the culture of inertia is affecting us all. I don’t think a particular change can be mandated or directed, but I do believe we can change the expectation around if we change, and how we change. I’m working towards both ends, and (albeit in one small rural district) am seeing huge effect sizes… essentially in building a culture of collaborative learning on the student and teacher levels at once. Thanks so much for the conversations!

      Liked by 1 person

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