Things Not to Say

Judgments about who is smart based on prior achievement or social categories violate a fundamental principle of equity and are consequential: learning is not the same as achievement. Confounding this problem, American schools tend to be organized in ways that obscure distinctions between learning and achievement. In fact, they are often built around the idea that differences in student achievement are the natural consequence of differences in ability. The logic of tracking, particularly in the early grades, rests on notions of identifiable differences in ability that require different approaches in teaching.

Ilana Horn, Status: The Social Organization of Smartness

I have plenty of students who arrive to my class with deeply entrenched ideas about whether they are “math people”, and whether they can excel in math class.  For some students this means years of negative experiences with math and a firmly fixed mindset about what they perceive as their lack of mathematical ability. My greatest successes as a teacher have been moving the needle on these students’ perceptions of their relationship with mathematics, though this happens much more rarely than I would like.

One habit that has crept into my teaching subconscious is to think about how that subset of students interprets everything I say. This has led to a short list of things not to say, of phrases that can seem benign on the surface but reinforce student perceptions and beliefs about status and ability.

“This is pretty easy.”
Any time I describe a topic as easy, or compare topics in a way that makes one topic sound easy, I alienate every student who finds that topic hard. One student is too many.

“Does that make sense?”
Plenty of students are willing to play this game and ask great questions. But the implication here is “whoever feels confused, please share your inadequacy with the class”. Instead, I can ask students what was unclear, or ask a more specific question that acts as more productive formative assessment.

“It seems like everyone gets it.”
I used to do this all the time. It’s nice to feel like kids are learning, and to communicate that to the class. But by saying this I alienate every student who doesn’t get it. One student is too many.

What else? What other phrases or ideas can send damaging messages to a subset of students?

9 thoughts on “Things Not to Say

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Agreed — I use pieces of the Exeter curriculum at times, and they love to say “As you have learned”, or “As clearly follow” or things like that.

  1. Benjamin Leis

    Those all seem worthwhile. The problem is that the instinct to judge relative performance is really pervasive. And I should put the emphasis on instinctual. I see kids all the time saying “This is easy”, looking at peers scores or how fast they finish something etc. Even when they don’t say something, I think they are internally making judgments.

    You can somewhat correct for those behaviors that are external although its pretty hard to keep kids from using language naturally. I see folks quixotically trying to change the entire value system from end to end in response to this. To me it seems like interventions where kids see themselves genuinely succeeding are more powerful and something more localized that has a chance of affecting change.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      I also wonder about the role of redefining success so that there is a broader range of students who can feel successful in math class, and how that can synergize with what you’re naming.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks! I know what you mean about this is hard. Anything comparative could be problematic, at least for a subset of students. I like your narration — that it says something about the effort required from students, rather than static properties of the mathematics.

  2. Pingback: That Voice In Your Head | Reflections and Tangents

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