I used to…but now I…

Whenever I feel compelled to give unsolicited advice to teachers new to the profession, I give the following three suggestions:

  1. Stay curious. Always be willing to learn new things.
  2. Stay humble. Always be willing to unlearn things you thought were true, but aren’t.
  3. Begin each day with a reminder to yourself that you really, really like your students. All of them.

With respect to item #2, I started a Twitter thread documenting examples of things I have had to unlearn in my classroom. For each of the things I used to believe in my math classroom, I tried to include what I now believe instead. Here are some of examples. Perhaps some of these will ring true for you and spark a desire to unlearn some things you currently believe to be true.

Here is the first tweet that started them all…

I used to blame parents and students when my students did poorly in class or misbehaved in class. Everything was THEIR fault. I now understand that I have tremendous influence over what goes on in my classroom and how well my students achieve. Students who experience three years of above average teaching achieve 50 percentile points more than students who experienced three years of below average teachers. My job is to improve my craft to ensure that I am at least one of those years of above-average teaching.  Hattie has long documented the power and benefit of teachers having the collective belief in their ability to positively affect students.

For many years I was completely unaware that I was creating great anxiety in some of my students by doing the weekly timed integer speed quizzes. I now know that fluency is the presence of FOUR things: speed, accuracy, flexibility, and appropriate strategy use. While times quizzes may measure speed and accuracy, they definitely do not encourage students to improve their flexibility and thoughtfulness about which strategy to employ on any given problem. To help students develop all four component of fluency, I use routines and procedures such as Number Talks, Thinking Classrooms, and 5 Practices to get students talking about their thinking. In doing so, this also allows me to assess in a humane manner how each student is progressing with fluency.

I used to be myopically focused on students earning points and me subsequently assigning grades. Somehow, mixed into all that, I also felt like i was supposed to prepare my students for the adult responsibility of meeting deadlines and goals. Allowing students to retake tests and quizzes was antithetical to my mistaken line of thinking. Feedback was not even on my radar. Now my focus is on student learning regardless of my anticipated timeline. Students are welcome to retake tests and quizzes as often as needed until the grading period runs out.

I thought it was my duty to assign copious amounts of homework each night. Anything less would have damaged my students’ futures. How wrong was that?!?!? Despite decades of intense study about whether homework improves student outcomes in mathematics, there is little –if any– consensus on the matter. I now use the 2-4-2 format that I learned from Steven Leinwand. Please give it a read!

Rather than each year dusting off the less I used last year to use again this year, I now employ many student-centered instructional strategies that empower students to do the thinking. This is definitely NOT the way I taught at the start of my career. Thinking Classroom, 5 Practices, and all the integrated ELD language routines are techniques I use daily.

I still advocate for the use of benchmark exams, but ONLY if the resulting data is used by grade-level teams to identify instructional changes that need to take place to better meet the needs of students. Benchmark exams as formative tools…yes! Better yet, we should also be looking for more humane ways to gather data about what students know and who might need additional support or enrichment. Thinking Classrooms is a great opportunity for teachers to listen to student conversations, thereby learning what students know and what misconceptions they may have.

While the correct answer is still important, I now focus more on eliciting student thinking. It is so much more valuable to me to have a deep understanding of what students are thinking, rather than merely focusing on the answer. PhotoMath and a whole host of other tools provide the correct answer without advancing student understanding.  I do love using technology such as Desmos, GeoGebra, GraspableMath, and Mathigon because these tools help students deepen their own math understanding while also arriving at the right answer.

Sometimes I would use math as a tool for punishment. Ugh…this hurts! I now have a productive mindset when students do not do their homework. Rather than blaming students, I think “What are they trying to tell me? Did I fail to prepare them enough to work independently? Am I not considering issues at home that might prevent homework from being completed?” Ultimately, I now strive to bring JOY in mathematics. Recreational math, student-centered discussions, games, and developing student curiosity are now my focus.

I know my math journey continues. There will be many things I can continue to add to this blog, but I wanted to get my thinking out there today. Please let me know in the comments what things you have UNLEARNED in your classroom.