Responding to Student Struggle

I’m still unpacking Lani Horn’s awesome talk on an asset-orientation that you can watch here, and I began exploring a few days ago here.

Ambitious Instruction

I want to explore the idea of ambitious instruction and the teacher actions connected to this idea. For a more academic read, this paper outlines the term ambitious instruction. Lani uses a much simpler representation to get across the key ideas:

Screenshot 2017-06-05 at 3.46.24 PM

I really like this contrast. Ambitious instruction takes typical practice and sets higher goals that are focused on student thinking and an expansive view of what it means to do mathematics.

Slipping Away From Ambitious Instruction

Lani talks about a result from the MIST study where many teachers were aiming for the ambitious instruction, but slipped back to the left side of the chart when students struggled. A number of teachers viewed the struggles as intractable because they focused on students’ deficits and shortcomings. This is a clear problem; if teachers’ conceptions of students cause us to think, implicitly or explicitly, that they aren’t capable of engaging with meaningful mathematics, we’re stuck.

Even tougher was that a larger group of teachers, even if they didn’t use deficit language to characterize students, still moved away from ambitious instruction when students struggled. They were trying, but when things got hard they slipped back and reduced the cognitive demands for students.

I can see myself in both of these examples. I’ve been guilty of using a deficit framing of struggling students, and I’ve been guilty of lowering the cognitive demand of tasks when the going gets tough. Both actions can seem benign on the surface, whether I’m describing a student as unmotivated or making a choice that a certain task isn’t appropriate for that class that day. But in practice, these actions functioned in a way that lowered expectations and denied opportunities to learners.

Moving Forward

One solution Lani offers is teacher education and ongoing professional development that focus on ability, bias, and an asset-orientation to counter deficit thinking. I want to continue thinking about how to build this habit: to catch myself in instances of deficit thinking, to educate myself in ways of seeing strengths in all students, and to surface and address my own biases.

At the same time, I think there’s an important instructional piece. I can enact high expectations for students by challenging them with high cognitive demand tasks and having scaffolds ready if they are necessary. I can practice the course corrections I need when I realize a class is not ready for a demanding task, step back to build the foundation, and return to an opportunity to challenge students with meaningful mathematics.

I see these as two different skills I can work to improve to support my practice:

  • An asset-oriented approach to framing and talking about students that frames challenges as solvable and values students for what they bring to the classroom
  • A focus on adjusting the scaffolds and supports rather than the rigor and expectations of demanding tasks that students struggle with

This still feels a little fuzzy to me, and I’m left with the same question Lani ends her talk with: what structures help teachers sustain this work and this practice on a day-to-day and a year-to-year basis?

6 thoughts on “Responding to Student Struggle

  1. Michael Pershan

    Lani talks about a result from the MIST study where many teachers were aiming for the ambitious instruction, but slipped back to the left side of the chart when students struggled. A number of teachers viewed the struggles as intractable because they focused on students’ deficits and shortcomings.

    I’m trying to work through the causal chain really carefully. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

    Part A: Teachers have high goals for their teaching…but then kids struggle. This struggle makes their academic shortcomings highly visible. Then, teachers fixate on these shortcomings. They think about the shortcomings more and more often when planning and teaching.

    Part B: Thinking about shortcomings makes you teach differently. You can’t fix mistakes, you can’t delete not-knowing. The only way to teach is to build from strength to strength. You need to pick a thing that it good for kids to know, and you need to figure out how to help them build that knowledge. But when you think about shortcomings, you don’t do this. You teach ineffectively.

    Part C: But it’s much larger than that. Isn’t it? This is the part that I don’t understand. If ambitious teaching is more effective, then why are teachers falling back to easier but worse instruction when there are struggles? What is the explanation?

    1. dkane47 Post author

      “easier but worse instruction”

      I have a different understanding of ambitious instruction. I think it can also be understood as relating to the depth of knowledge students have. I can teach students procedures and strategies for well-defined problems, or I can set more ambitious goals of problems that require a higher level of depth of knowledge and better transfer to new situations. That’s the ambitious part. And it’s hard — I have a finite amount of time, it’s hard to reach those more ambitious goals with the time available. The question is the extent to which teachers opt for the easier goals and lower expectations in the face of student struggle.

      1. Michael Pershan

        What you said makes sense to me. So this is just straightforward: it’s doing an easier thing because the harder thing is hard.

        Why does a deficit-orientation come into this? Why does having an asset-orientation keep you from giving up on a hard thing?

        1. dkane47 Post author

          I blabbed about this over here:

          tl;dr the heart of being asset-oriented is being solution-oriented. It’s forward looking, it’s focused on figuring out where students are and how to get them where they need to go. Being deficit-oriented is looking backwards and focusing on what students don’t know and things they don’t have control over.

          I think there’s also an element of blaming in some of the teacher talk I’ve engaged in and heard. Talking about what those students can do, without taking responsibility for the job of the teacher in holding students to high standards. That way you’re making a change because of the students’ histories, and it’s not on the teacher for lowering expectations.

          1. Michael Pershan

            Yeah! I read and liked your other post too.

            I get being solution-oriented. This seems generally like a way to persist in doing hard things — focus on what you can do, don’t blame others, don’t see the problem as impossible to solve.

            I feel like this is a dumb question, but how do we know that “asset-orientation” is really a separate, stable thing that can contribute to sticking with ambitious teaching? (This is a sort of researchy concern that I’m sure Lani has a clear answer to, but it’s still what I’m wondering.)

            I have no doubt that teachers who employ asset-oriented are more likely persist in ambitious teaching. But (stupid, obvious concern) couldn’t that just be because if you know how to deal with whatever student struggles you’re experiencing, you’ll end up oriented towards student assets and teaching solutions?

            Maybe asset orientation is just a symptom of knowing how to persist in ambitious teaching?

  2. dkane47 Post author

    Got it. There’s definitely a causation vs correlation question here. The key citation from Lani’s talk is here:

    It’s actually a dissertation. Looks like the pdf is not accessible but there’s a detailed abstract. Sample size is also 11, so there’s a question there. But it gets at a synergy:

    “These findings suggest that effecting lasting instructional improvement at scale might involve supporting teachers to (a) develop a sophisticated vision of instruction and (b) come to see their own students as capable of engaging in rigorous mathematics, then (c) navigate the ongoing challenges involved in enacting ambitious instruction with diverse students.”


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