Math is Figure-Out-Able with Pam Harris

Ep 75: Stop Labeling Students

November 23, 2021 Pam Harris
Math is Figure-Out-Able with Pam Harris
Ep 75: Stop Labeling Students
Show Notes Transcript

Are your students dumb or smart? Fast or slow? Under achiever or advance achiever? Or are they just your students with varying experiences? In this episode, Pam and Kim discuss labels, and the effect they have on you as teachers and your students. They propose a different way to look at your students so that you can provide opportunities and experiences for all students so that they continue to learn and love math.
Talking Points:

  • The problem with labels.
  • What do we believe about learning?
  • Focus on providing experience rather than natural talent or ability.      
Pam Harris:

Hey fellow mathematicians. Welcome to the podcast where Math is Figure-Out-Able. I'm Pam.

Kim Montague:

And I'm Kim.

Pam Harris:

And we make the case that mathematizing is not about mimicking steps, or rote memorizing facts. But it's about thinking, reasoning about creating and using mental mathematical relationships. We take the strong stance that not only are algorithms not particularly helpful in teaching, but that mimicking algorithms actually keep students from being the mathematicians they can be. We answer the question, if not algorithms and step by step procedures, then what?

Kim Montague:

So Pam, I have to tell you, um, I kind of mentioned some things about what...

Pam Harris:

I'm kind of excited about today. I'm really excited about today's episode, I'll just tell you right now. Hold on your hats, everybody. Here goes.

Kim Montague:

I'm a little fired up. So I'm backstory: I recently saw some interesting things on a social media platform by some fairly big name people.

Pam Harris:

Well known, math teacher/educators.

Kim Montague:

And I got me some guff a little bit because the language surrounding describing kids was really troublesome for me. And very specifically, calling kids 'high flyers.' And the first thing that popped into my head at that time was if we're talking about students as 'high fliers,' then what would the opposite of that be? And it makes me really sad, makes me really frustrated. And so, you know, I'm going to admit, and I'm going to say, you know, right here, that you and I have not always been the best. But in that moment, we have probably said things before that could be taken out of context, we just throw out some words. So when you know better, you do better. Right?

Pam Harris:

Right. Absolutely.

Kim Montague:

And I got really fired up which, for me, talks to how much progress I have made in that area. And so that's what I'm gonna talk about today.

Pam Harris:

Yeah, let's do it.

Kim Montague:

This idea, that we still today, talk about kids as slow kids, low kids, high kids.

Pam Harris:

High flyers.

Kim Montague:

High flyers

Pam Harris:

Smart kids, dumb kids. I mean, yeah, let's be real.

Kim Montague:

This idea that we categorize students is really troublesome. And I think that you and I have talked about this before. It's not necessarily just about replacing smart and dumb with some catchy or words.

Pam Harris:

It's not just about the labels.

Kim Montague:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes

Pam Harris:

Right? It's not just like, let's come up with a better label. Okay, so we can't call you smart and dumb. So yeah, we'll call you high flyers and strugglers. There, that, let's do that. Let's do that. Now, Kim, like you said, we've probably been guilty. Okay. I've been guilty, like I have for sure said, "And for your struggle, kids. And..." I don't know what I I don't know what I don't know what I said, I don't think I... high flyers is not what I said. But I have for sure been guilty of not only labeling kids, not only putting this sort of label or term or even if it was kind of a happy term, you know, like a different... "I'm not calling you dumb. I'm just saying you're struggling." Not only that, but actually how do we think about kids? What do we think about the the nature of learning and the nature of human beings? And the capability? Do we believe in people?

Kim Montague:

So the other thing that really struck me was that in that same bit, in that same posts, if you will, was this idea that there were some kids who need support, and some kids who need a challenge. It was very how, here's for your kids who need support, and here's for your kids any challenge. So not only was a little fired up about the announcement of high fliers, it was this idea that not only are there 'these are those,' it was this idea that we can't acknowledge that all kids need support in some way or another.

Pam Harris:

Absolutely.

Kim Montague:

And all kids need challenged in some way or the other.

Pam Harris:

Absolutely. And that's huge.

Kim Montague:

Right.

Pam Harris:

I mean I really think that that speaks to what we believe about human beings and their capabilities to learn and grow from where they are.

Kim Montague:

Right.

Pam Harris:

A lot of us have lately been talking about approaching students with an asset perspective. Do we really believe it? Do we believe that it makes sense to talk about what kids can do, what they do own, what they do bring to the table because they do. Every single kid bring stuff to the table. They bring their prior experience, they bring their personality, they bring their humor, they bring their originality and creativity and their desires and hopes and dreams and everything they bring, they bring with them. They're not this sort of, "Oh, like now we're in math class. And so we separate all that stuff out." It really is more than just language. And I gotta tell you, it's interesting because we're having this conversation. And I, because of that I was talking with a friend of mine, not really a colleague, more of a friend, and not as much into math ed, a little bit, but not too much. And she said, because I was kind of getting fired up too and I told her we were going to record this podcast, and she said, "Oh, so what should what should we call kids?" And I was like, "Ahhh!"

Kim Montague:

Yeah, well, I have an answer for that, actually.

Pam Harris:

Oh, want to hear it. Okay.

Kim Montague:

Maybe maybe not an answer for what we should call kids, because we should call them our students. But I think a new way to reframe your mind, a new way to consider that I'd like for us to propose is that it has everything to do with experience, everything to do with have you had the experience necessary to build the connections where we are right now in our math class?

Pam Harris:

And to play on that a little bit? Or maybe we should let that soak for just a second? Like, what does Kim mean by that? Let me sort of say the opposite. So the opposite could

be:

are you quick or slow? Like we could sort kids: they're really quick, they're really slow. Is that what means that you can do mathematics? Or is that sort of how we should judge you? Or we could say, "Oh, you're really smart? Or you're really dumb?" Or we could say, "Oh, you really own a lot? Or you or you don't own anything at all?" Or we could say, "Oh, you're really..." we could do the whole learning style thing, which I don't believe in, but, "You're really visual and you're really verbal." And like we could sort of sort kids that way. What are some other ways that people sort kids, Kim. Like not ways that we necessarily believe in but helped me with some other?

Kim Montague:

I don't even love all the words.

Pam Harris:

It's so, well, I don't have any of the words but it's so often it's fast and slow.

Kim Montague:

Yeah.

Pam Harris:

So often, it's based on speed.

Kim Montague:

It's advanced or...

Pam Harris:

Remedial.

Kim Montague:

They're advanced in math, and they need more...

Pam Harris:

It could be RTI. Could be GT, we might call kids GT, and Title One, "The title one kids, oh, those Title One kids." Like this label that we're putting on kids. What does it mean to you? Well, we are pushing back, that all of the

Kim Montague:

Well, I'm suggesting that there are, we ways that we sort of have typically kind of sorted kids. Well, let me just throw out one more I just thought of, we put them on a computer, and they take this stupid test. And then the computer says, "Oh, you need to be challenged. We're going to put you in this high flier group. You don't know what you're doing. And so we're going to put you in the support group." What do they know? Like, what do they know? What do they bring to the table? And then how could we move from there? And what you're suggesting is, what they know, what they own, where they are in the landscape of learning has everything to do with the experiences that they've had, and less to do with how fast they are at it. Or how smart or dumb or all the other things that we don't like all those terms are not helpful. know this. Kids come to school very early, some having more experience academically than others, some more with reading experience than others, some more with math experience, and others.

Pam Harris:

Some more with communication experience, where if we have a kid who's only ever, "Heard sit down, shut up, turn it on, turn it off," and have never like engaged in, you know, conversations back and forth. And they've never sort of had discussions where they're asked to justify what they're thinking or, you know, have like, there's some intellectual arguments going on. Like, if kids have never experienced that, then they haven't yet experienced that, as some kids have. It might look like some kids are somehow better than other kids. But, what we are suggesting is in a huge way, it's experience. Have they had the experience necessary to create those connections?

Kim Montague:

And I'll acknowledge that, sometimes kids need more experience than their peer might need. Because they've, listen my own kids. They're my kids. They've been talking math for a very long time. I pick up what they're putting down and I help them make connections, right? This is what I do. They have had...

Pam Harris:

I've done a video of you working with tiny, tiny Luke and Cooper, like back and forth and I'm like loving watching you like helping with their math.

Kim Montague:

They quote unquote, 'do well in math' because they've had somebody in their life, who helps that along, who nudges, who makes connections with them. And they have peers who don't have that experience, who don't have that, you know, opportunity and so that doesn't mean that my kids are better than some other kids. It means they've had more experience. And I think that's, the more I consider it, the more I consider the idea that maybe some just need more experience than others, maybe they just haven't had enough. I'll give you an example if you?

Pam Harris:

Yeah.

Kim Montague:

So my younger son in fourth grade was really amped up about division. And he said, "I'm bad at Division."

Pam Harris:

I remember that.

Kim Montague:

He was so frustrated with division. And like strong multiplication skills, and strong thinking, strong strategies, strong. But his connection was tenuous to division. He really, and he kept saying, "I'm bad at division." And I said, "Don't say that, like, you just need more time." Right? He recently, he's in fifth grade, he recently came home and said, "Like, I'm there, like, I'm, I've got some ideas, I've got some strategies." And I said to him, "Feels to me, like, you just need a little bit more time and experience." And he did, and he acknowledges it. And he looks back on fourth grade him. And he like, says to himself, "Umm, shouldn't have said that." Like, he acknowledges that he just needed to think a little bit longer about some new ideas. And it took him a little bit of time. But here he is. And he has great experiences now and has amazing ideas.

Pam Harris:

Absolutely. And for him to be able to take that into other areas of his life and just like give himself grace and say I just did more experience here. I see more time. And then let's be frank, then he gets to choose, do I want to spend my time and getting these experiences, at whatever point he gets to choose what he wants to sort of focus on in his life. Some kids may need more time and will need more time and experience and other kids to construct certain things. So I'll tell you my story. So some of you guys know I played basketball. Y'all I'm short. And I'm slow. And I played basketball. If I could compare playing basketball to sometimes the way that we teach. Sometimes I feel like the way that we teach is that we tell kids you can't play. Like we tell kids, you're too short. You're too slow. You can't play. And I want to, from my experience as being short and slow, y'all I played. Now, I worked hard. I worked really hard. I worked much harder than many of the kids that I played with, because it took me more time. And I needed more experience. But I was allowed to play. Like, interestingly, so on the high school team, I was on the A team in eighth grade, ninth grade. And then when I went to the high school, we had the sophomore JV and varsity, and all of my peers that I played with, made the JV team and I made the sophomore team. And I was like, oh, man, like it was. That was a hard moment for me. So I had to make a decision. Do I want to put in the time and the effort to get good enough? Because I wanted to play varsity, like I wanted to play. And at that moment, I get to make a choice, like what do I want to, if for me to play it's going to take more experience than some of my other peers. Then at that point, I was given the choice. Nobody said to me, "Nope, you're stuck on the sophomore team forever. We're never gonna let you move up. And no matter how good you get, no matter how much time you put into it, we're not even gonna allow you to do that. We are going to say, since you can't work, you don't get to play you. You can just sit over." In fact, Kim, I had mentioned this to you before and you were like, "Oh, you just we're gonna have to do layups the whole time." I was like, "Well, no, that's even like, at least that would be letting me like, do some math." But no, a better analogy would be if you like, made me sit and watch people play. "Okay, Pam, you're not good enough. So I'm just gonna have you watch and then mimic what you see." Like that's never going to create a good ballplayer. A good ballplayer is going to have to get on the court and play, which brilliantly is what being on the sophomore team allowed me to do. Because I was the best, or one of the best on the sophomore team, I play it a lot, right? And so by playing a lot, then I got a lot of experience. And I was able to sort of... experience... That's what we're talking about today is experience. And because I was able to get a lot of experience, then I made the varsity and then, y'all I played in Switzerland. A little known fact about Pam, I had some fun playing semi pro ball and Switzerland a little while, because I was allowed to play. Like I was given the choice. All too often in math education, I think we don't give kids the choice to really play with mathematics. Instead, we give them rules and procedures, and we drill memorizing, and we pretend that we're allowing them to actually play mathematics, when in reality, that's not real math. That's fake math. I want to give kids the chance to gain the experience.

Kim Montague:

Yeah. And so you know, we need to acknowledge that there are some gaps if you will, in classrooms, some kids who've had more experience, some kids who've had little less experience or maybe a lot less experience, and we can't give speed up time. But the best thing that we can do is to continue to give kids experience. And because some of them haven't had all the experiences, they may not have had enough by the time they're in high school math to do calculus. That doesn't mean that we shortcut and do what you're saying, and give them rules and procedures, and just call them strugglers and then keep giving them fake math.

Pam Harris:

Oh, in fact, there's a fantastic quote by Peter Liljedahl, in Building Thinking Classrooms, where he says, "Student difficulty with mathematics has been a pervasive and systematic problem since the advent of public education. Not because students can't learn mathematics, but because by and large, students can't learn by being told how to do it." And that is the story of the kids where we just sit them on the bench and say, "Watch the basketball game and just mimic." And nobody plays basketball well that way. One other thing I wanted to pop in just real quick with the basketball analogy is, to be really clear, there are people who have more natural talent than me at playing basketball. I think there are people who have more natural talent at mathematizing and doing real math and might do it a little quicker than others. But what we are suggesting is, we don't want to focus on that. And we don't think it's important. What we think is important is that we take kids from wherever they are, and we continue to move their mathematics forward. We continue to help them develop as a mathematician. And the best way to do that is pumping experience into them.

Kim Montague:

So maybe a challenge for our listeners is, if that's what you believe, if you believe the same thing that we believe, that all kids can, that experience matters. Maybe consider some of the things that we're saying if that message is being sent to your students, with your students, about your students, that all kids need support. All kids need challenge. All kids need experience.

Pam Harris:

And we can provide that support and challenge and experience to all of our students as we help mentor them to be young mathematicians. Whoo. Super cool. Hey, Kim, we are announcing that we've got some merch coming up. Bam!

Kim Montague:

Very cool stuff. Yep. MathisFigureOutAble. All kinds of good stuff. November 26. On Black Friday, you can get some stuff to share with your favorite mathematicians.

Pam Harris:

Excellent. So if you want to learn more mathematics and refine your math teaching so that you and students are mathematizing more and more, then join the Math is Figure-Out-Able movement and help us spread the word that Math is Figure-Out-Able.